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> Latest publications : North Africa, Sahara, West Africa - in french
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2015 NEWS CONTENTS:

> 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
> Study Lends New Support to Theory that Early Humans were Scavengers, 3 March 2015
> 'First human' discovered in Ethiopia, 4 March 2015
> Ancient Fossils Reveal Diversity in the Body Structure of Human Ancestors, 9 March 2015
> A carpet of stone tools in the Sahara, 11 March 2015
> East African Fossil Finds Show Early Human Diversity, 19 March 2015
> 'Little Foot' pushes back age of earliest South African hominids, 1 April 2015
> Early modern humans hugged riverine woodland environments in Africa, 7 April 2015



As the ancient savanna grasslands expanded in Africa, early modern
humans lived and
foraged near rivers and lakes, such as Lake Victoria. View of
Rusinga island.
Early modern humans hugged riverine woodland environments in Africa
7 April 2015
Research in genetics and across a variety of archaeological sites in Africa and beyond has shown that anatomically modern humans (AMH) dispersed between regions within and also out of Africa from 70,000 to 35,000 years ago. Paleoanthropologists have long suggested that environmental changes have played a key role in this process. However, a clear understanding of the complexity and how this took place has been lacking due to the deficiency of archaeological evidence in association with paleoenvironmental data.
In a recent study conducted by Nicole Garrett of the University of Minnesota and colleagues, researchers have revealed additional information by applying stable isotope analysis of paleosols and fauna remains associated with Middle Stone Age (MSA) archaeological sites on Rusinga and Mfangano islands in Lake Victoria in East Africa.
Along with bifacial points and Levallois flakes and cores typically identified with the presence of AMH, the sites contained the remains of ancient fauna long extinct, including mammals that inhabit wetland/riverine-type environments, as well as mammals that lived on the dry, open grasslands of the African savanna. Some of the fossil remains featured cut marks likely created by stone tools.
"The Pleistocene faunas from Rusinga and Mfangano contain the largest number of extinct species of any Pleistocene site in East Africa during the last 400,000 years," wrote the study authors in the detailed research report, published in the Journal of Human Evolution.
Most telling, however, was the specific mix of fauna found in association with the human lithic artifact sites. Along with taxa that lived in wet environments, such as Hippopotamus, they also found evidence of ungulates related to gazelles, widebeest and zebra, mammals that thrived primarily in dry, open grassland environments. Results of their analysis suggested a period when the climate had become drier, even drier than today, with the expansion of the savanna open grasslands, while leaving wetter, woodland refugia for humans and other mammals around critical riverine or lake areas.
"As the expanse of Lake Victoria is largely rainfall dependent, this and other lines of evidence imply a substantial reduction [anciently] in water level, likely transforming Rusinga and Mfangano into topographic highpoints on a grassland landscape, which would have supported more wooded habitats in an otherwise rich open grassland ecosystem," wrote the authors. "The association of stone tools with the paleosols and fossils sampled here suggest that, in some cases, humans persisted during intervals of drier conditions with expanded grassland cover rather than migrating into wetter habitats. They did this by exploiting locally closed and well-watered habitats within the larger grassland communities."
The researchers estimate that the layers at the sites that contain the artifacts and fossils range in age between 100,000 and 45,000 years ago, containing the critical time period when early modern humans were dispersing between equatorial East Africa and Central Africa, as well as dispersing out of Africa into the rest of the world.
The detailed report has been published as an article in press in the online version of the Journal of Human Evolution.

Source : http://popular-archaeology.com/issue/spring-2015/article/early-modern-humans-hugged-riverine-woodland-environments-in-africa

 


OLD SOUTH: Researchers have dated Little Foot, a South African fossil skeleton that includes
this skull, to 3.67 million years ago. If the new
age holds up, it makes Little Foot the oldest
known hominid in that
part of Africa.
'Little Foot' pushes back age of earliest South African hominids
1 April 2015
Lucy's species, an East African hominid line called Australopithecus afarensis, had a South African counterpart, a new study finds.
A nearly complete fossil skeleton from South Africa's Sterkfontein Caves dates to 3.67 million years ago, making it roughly 1 million years older than any other South African hominid, say geochemist Darryl Granger of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., and his colleagues. Dubbed Little Foot by one of its discoverers, the skeleton represents a species originally proposed for fossils at a nearby site in 1948, Australopithecus prometheus, the scientists contend in the April 2 Nature.
Previous estimates of the specimen's age ranged from roughly 3 million to 2 million years ago. The new date, if correct, would make Little Foot contemporary with Lucy's species, which lived in East Africa from about 4 million to 3 million years ago.
"Little Foot's new date is a reminder that there could well have been many species of Australopithecus extending over a much wider area of Africa than just the small number of fossil sites in East Africa and South Africa," says study coauthor Ronald Clarke, a paleoanthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
Clarke has worked since 1997 to free much of Little Foot's skeleton from rock that had encased it (SN: 8/10/13, p. 29). Gradual sinking of cave sediments created gaps later filled by calcite deposits as water flowed down the walls or along the floor of the cave. That made it difficult to know whether Little Foot lay in rock from its own time or later.
Granger and his colleagues measured the decay of radioactive forms of aluminum and beryllium in 11 samples from quartz surrounding Little Foot's skeleton. Decay of each element occurs at known rates shortly after sediment is buried. Nine of the 11 samples displayed comparable levels of decay, the researchers say, indicating that the rock was deposited on a single occasion.
Calculations based on decay rates of each radioactive substance produced the new age estimate.
Granger's group used the same technique to date stone artifacts found elsewhere in Sterkfontein Caves to 2.18 million years ago. Stone tools at nearby South African sites also date to around 2 million years ago.
While sediment dates for the Sterkfontein artifacts appear solid, Little Foot may not be as old as the new report concludes, remarks geoarchaeologist Andy Herries of La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. "Few, if any," fossil deposits in South Africa date to as early as 3.67 million years ago, says Herries, who has conducted dating studies at Sterkfontein and nearby caves. Rushing water or other natural events may have moved sediment dated by Granger's team from an older to a younger part of the cave where Little Foot lay, Herries cautions.
"Little Foot is certainly somewhere between 3.7 million and 2.2 million years old," he says.
Even if Little Foot lived 3.67 million years ago, "it's interesting but hardly shocking that australopithecines might be that old in South Africa," comments paleoanthropologist William Jungers of Stony Brook University in New York. Several Australopithecus species evolved in East Africa around that time, suggesting that other variants of the ancient genus could have emerged elsewhere in Africa, he says.
Clarke argues that Little Foot's distinctively shaped molar teeth, flat face and other traits justify assigning it to a new species. But many researchers, including Herries and Jungers, classify hundreds of Australopithecus fossils recovered at Sterkfontein Caves, including those of Little Foot, as Australopithecus africanus. Sterkfontein's A. africanus fossils are generally regarded as between 2.6 million and 2 million years old.
Editor's note: This story was updated on April 2, 2015, to clarify the history of Little Foot's species name, the difficulty in dating the fossil and the shape of Little Foot's teeth.

Source : https://www.sciencenews.org/article/%E2%80%98little-foot%E2%80%99-pushes-back-age-earliest-south-african-hominids

 


The Koobi Fora field
center near Lake
Turkana, Kenya.
East African Fossil Finds Show Early Human Diversity
19 March 2015
Modern scholarship on human evolution has generally accepted the suggestion that there were some key changes in the skeletal anatomy of early humans sometime between the two genuses, Australopithecus, and Homo. Australopithecus, the proto-human thought to be ancestral to the more direct human line of Homo, is considered to have featured more primitive, ape-like characteristics. Homo, by contrast, has been thought to feature new, derived characteristics approaching the morphology more typically associated with human-like physical traits.
But given the relative scarcity of early Homo fossil remains, comparatively less is known about the earliest Homo postcranial morphologies. A recent study by an international team of Homo fossil remains uncovered in Kenya, however, has provided a few more clues reflecting on the diversity and complexity of early Homo differentiation during the earliest periods of the emergence of humans from the still obscure primordial mix of a time when some species of Australopithecus are thought to have coexisted with their 'more advanced' Homo counterparts. The team examined a partial ilium (the uppermost and largest bone of the pelvis), and a femur (thigh bone) found at the famous hominin fossil site of Koobi Fora, Kenya, dating to 1.9 Ma (millions of years ago). They found that the specimens featured attributes commonly associated with the genus Homo. But they also found morphological characteristics not typically seen in eastern African early Homo erectus fossils: "The geometry of the femoral midshaft and contour of the pelvic inlet do not resemble that of any specimens attributed to H. erectus from eastern Africa," summarized the study authors in their report, which will soon be published in the Journal of Human Evolution. "This new fossil confirms the presence of at least two postcranial morphotypes within early Homo, and documents diversity in postcranial morphology among early Homo species that may reflect underlying body form and/or adaptive differences."*
Koobi Fora has long been known as a key region containing hominin fossils that have shed light on human evolution over the last 4.2 million years. It is described as a ridge or outcrop of Pliocene/Pleistocene sediments that preserve a prolific record of mammal fossils, including early hominin species. The ridge is being eroded into a badlands terrain by rivers draining into modern Lake Turkana. Anciently, Lake Turkana provided a good habitable lake environment for a variety of mammals, including early humans. In 1968, Richard Leakey, the son of famous paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey and Mary Leakey, established the Koobi Fora Base Camp, a field center for hominin studies, at Lake Turkana.

Source : http://popular-archaeology.com/issue/spring-2015/article/east-african-fossil-find-shows-early-human-diversity

 


The carpet of lithics - a view across a valley in
the Messak landscape. Image: Foley/Mirazón
Lahr
A carpet of stone tools in the Sahara
11 March 2015
A new intensive survey of the Messak Settafet escarpment, a massive outcrop of sandstone in the middle of the Saharan desert, has shown that stone tools occur "ubiquitously" across the entire landscape: averaging 75 artefacts per square metre, or 75 million per square kilometre.
Researchers say the vast 'carpet' of stone-age tools - extracted from and discarded onto the escarpment over hundreds of thousands of years - is the earliest known example of an entire landscape being modified by hominins: the group of creatures that include us and our ancestral species.
Build-up of tools
The Messak Settafet runs a total length of 350 km, with an average width of 60 km. Parts of the landscape are 'anthropogenic', or man-made, through build-up of tools over hundreds of thousands of years.
The research team have used this and other studies to attempt to estimate the volume of stone tools discarded over the last one million years of human evolution on the African continent alone. They say that it is the equivalent of more than one Great Pyramid of Giza per square kilometre of the entire continent (2.1 x 1014 cubic metres of rock).
"The Messak sandstone, now in the middle of the vast sand seas of Libya, would have been a high quality rock for hominins to fracture - the landscape is in effect a carpet of stone tools, most probably made in the Middle and Upper Pleistocene," said Dr Robert Foley, from the Leverhulme Centre for Evolutionary Studies at the University of Cambridge, who conducted the research with colleague Dr Marta Mirazón Lahr.
"The term 'anthropocene' is now used to denote the point at which humans began to have a significant effect on the environment," said Mirazón Lahr. "The critical time may well be the beginning of the industrial revolution about 200 years ago. Some talk of an 'early anthropocene' about 10,000 years ago when forests began being cleared for agriculture.
"Making stone tools, however, dates back more than two million years, and little research has been done on the impact of this activity. The Messak Settafet is the earliest demonstrated example of the scars of human activity across an entire landscape; the effects of our technology on the environment may be considerably older than previously thought," Mirazón Lahr said.
Surface survey
The survey, conducted in 2011, involved randomly selecting plots of one metre squared across the parts of the plateau surface. In each square, the researchers sifted through all the stones to identify the number that showed evidence of modification through hominin activity - evidence such as a 'bulb of percussion': a bulge or curved dent on the surface of a stone tool produced by the angular blows of hominin percussion. The average number of artefacts across all sample squares was 75.
At the simple end, large flakes of stone would have been opportunistically hacked from boulders to be used for cutting or as weapons. At the more sophisticated level, researchers found evidence that specific tools had been used to wedge into the stone in order split it.
"It is clear from the scale of activity how important stone tools were, and shows that African hominins were strongly technologically dependent," said Foley. "Landscapes such as these must have been magnets for hominin populations, either for 'stone foraging trips' or residential occupation."
Stone tool dependence
The researchers say that if - as seems likely - the success of Stone Age communities depended significantly on tool technology, there would be enormous advantage to knowing, remembering and indeed controlling access to areas with a "super-abundance" of raw materials, such as the Messak Settafet.
"Hominins may well have become tethered to these areas, unable to stray too far if survival depended on access to the raw materials for tools, and forced to make other adaptations subservient to that need," said Mirazón Lahr.
One way that the environmental impact of hominin tool excavation may have been positive for later humans is through the clusters of small quarrying pits dotted across the landscape (ranging up to 2 metres in diameter, and 50 centimetres in depth).
Trapping stones
These pits would have retained moisture - with surface water still visible today after rains - and the small pools would have attracted game. In many of these pits, the team found 'trapping stones': large stones used for traps and ties for game and/or cattle during the last 10,000 years.
By combining their data with previous extensive surveys carried out across Africa, the researchers attempted to estimate roughly how much stone had been used as tools and discarded during human evolution.
Although stone tool manufacture dates back at least 2.5 million years, the researchers limited the estimate to one million years. Based on their and others research, they standardised population density (based on extant hunter-gatherers), tool volume, the number of tools used by one person in a year and the amount of resulting debris per tool.
They estimate an average density of between 0.5 and 5 million stone artefacts per square kilometre of Africa. When converted into an estimate of volume, this is the equivalent of between 42 to 84 million Great Pyramids of Giza.
Researchers say this would be the equivalent of finding between 1.3 and 2.7 Great Pyramids per square kilometre throughout Africa.

The study is published in the open access journal PLOS ONE.

Source : http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/03/2015/a-carpet-of-stone-tools-in-the-sahara

 


1.9 million-year-old pelvis and femur bone fossils of early humans in Kenya reveal that there were
more distinctive species
of early humans than previously thought.
Ancient Fossils Reveal Diversity in the Body Structure of Human Ancestors
9 March 2015
COLUMBIA, Mo. - Recently released research on human evolution has revealed that species of early human ancestors had significant differences in facial features. Now, a University of Missouri researcher and her international team of colleagues have found that these early human species also differed throughout other parts of their skeletons and had distinct body forms. The research team found 1.9 million-year - old pelvis and femur fossils of an early human ancestor in Kenya, revealing greater diversity in the human family tree than scientists previously thought.
"What these new fossils are telling us is that the early species of our genus, Homo, were more distinctive than we thought. They differed not only in their faces and jaws, but in the rest of their bodies too," said Carol Ward, a professor of pathology and anatomical sciences in the MU School of Medicine. "The old depiction of linear evolution from ape to human with single steps in between is proving to be inaccurate. We are finding that evolution seemed to be experimenting with different human physical traits in different species before ending up with Homo sapiens."
Three early species belonging to the genus Homo have been identified prior to modern humans, or Homo sapiens. Homo rudolfensis and Homo habilis were the earliest versions, followed by Homo erectus and then Homo sapiens. Because the oldest erectus fossils that have been found are only 1.8 million years old, and have different bone structure than the new fossil, Ward and her research team conclude that the fossils they have discovered are either rudolfensis or habilis. Ward says these fossils show a diversity in the physical structures of human ancestors that has not been seen before.
"This new specimen has a hip joint like all other Homo species, but it also has a thinner pelvis and thighbone compared to Homo erectus," Ward said. "This doesn't necessarily mean that these early human ancestors moved or lived differently, but it does suggest that they were a distinct species that could have been identified not just from looking at their faces and jaws, but by seeing their body shapes as well. Our new fossils, along with the other new specimens reported over the past few weeks, tell us that the evolution of our genus goes back much earlier than we thought, and that many species and types of early humans coexisted for about a million years before our ancestors became the only Homo species left."
A small piece of the fossil femur was first discovered in 1980 at the Koobi Fora site in Kenya. Project co-investigator Meave Leakey returned to the site with her team in 2009 and uncovered the rest of the same femur and matching pelvis, proving that both fossils belonged to the same individual 1.9 million years ago.
Ward's co-investigators include recent MU graduate Ashley Hammond of Stony Brook University, current MU graduate student Elizabeth Moffett, geologist Craig Feibel from Rutgers University, Louise and Meave Leakey of the Turkana Basin Institute and Stony Brook University, Michael Plavcan of the University of Arkansas, Matthew Skinner of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and Fred Spoor of the University College London. The fossils are housed at the National Museums of Kenya.
This study was published in the Journal of Human Evolution.

Source : http://munews.missouri.edu/news-releases/2015/0309-ancient-fossils-reveal-diversity-in-the-body-structure-of-human-ancestors/

 


The fossil's teeth are smaller than those of other human relatives
'First human' discovered in Ethiopia
4 March 2015
Scientists have unearthed the jawbone of what they claim is one of the very first humans.
The 2.8 million-year-old specimen is 400,000 years older than researchers thought that our kind first emerged.
The discovery in Ethiopia suggests climate change spurred the transition from tree dweller to upright walker.
The head of the research team told BBC News that the find gives the first insight into "the most important transitions in human evolution".
Prof Brian Villmoare of the University of Nevada in Las Vegas said the discovery makes a clear link between an iconic 3.2 million-year-old hominin (human-like primate) discovered in the same area in 1974, called "Lucy".
Could Lucy's kind - which belonged to the species Australopithecus afarensis - have evolved into the very first primitive humans?
"That's what we are arguing," said Prof Villmoare.
But the fossil record between the time period when Lucy and her kin were alive and the emergence of Homo erectus (with its relatively large brain and humanlike body proportions) two million years ago is sparse.
The 2.8 million-year-old lower jawbone was found in the Ledi-Geraru research area, Afar Regional State, by Ethiopian student Chalachew Seyoum. He told BBC News that he was "stunned" when he saw the fossil.
"The moment I found it, I realised that it was important, as this is the time period represented by few (human) fossils in Eastern Africa."
The fossil is of the left side of the lower jaw, along with five teeth. The back molar teeth are smaller than those of other hominins living in the area and are one of the features that distinguish humans from more primitive ancestors, according to Professor William Kimbel, director of Arizona State University's Institute of Human Origins.
"Previously, the oldest fossil attributed to the genus Homo was an upper jaw from Hadar, Ethiopia, dated to 2.35m years ago," he told BBC News.
"So this new discovery pushes the human line back by 400,000 years or so, very close to its likely (pre-human) ancestor. Its mix of primitive and advanced features makes the Ledi jaw a good transitional form between (Lucy) and later humans."
A computer reconstruction of a skull belonging to the species Homo habilis, which has been published in Nature journal, indicates that it may well have been the evolutionary descendant of the species announced today.
The researcher involved, Prof Fred Spoor of University College London told BBC News that, taken together, the new findings had lifted a veil on a key period in the evolution of our species.
"By discovering a new fossil and re-analysing an old one we have truly contributed to our knowledge of our own evolutionary period, stretching over a million years that had been shrouded in mystery," he said.
The dating of the jawbone might help answer one of the key questions in human evolution. What caused some primitive ancestors to climb down from the trees and make their homes on the ground.
A separate study in Science hints that a change in climate might have been a factor. An analysis of the fossilised plant and animal life in the area suggests that what had once been lush forest had become dry grassland.
As the trees made way for vast plains, ancient human-like primates found a way of exploiting the new environmental niche, developing bigger brains and becoming less reliant on having big jaws and teeth by using tools.
Prof Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London described the discovery as a "big story".
He says the new species clearly does show the earliest step toward human characteristics, but suggests that half a jawbone is not enough to tell just how human it was and does not provide enough evidence to suggest that it was this line that led to us.

Source : http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-31718336

 


Thanks to big cats, early hominins could get a
decent meal out on the African savanna as much
as two million or more
years ago.
Study Lends New Support to Theory that Early Humans were Scavengers
3 March 2015
In a very real way, it may have been the lion and the long-extinct sabertoothed cat, not the dog, that was 'man's best friend', if we go back far enough into human prehistory.
In a recently published study in the Journal of Human Evolution, author and paleoanthropologist Briana Pobiner of the Smithsonian Institution's Human Origins Program shows that it was entirely feasible for early humans living on the African savanna as much as two million or more years ago to acquire enough calories simply by lying in wait and scavenging the remains of prey left by lions or big sabertoothed cats after they finished eating the first cuts.
She concluded this after spending several months in Kenya's Ol Pejeta Conservancy nature preserve observing, examining, and analyzing large carnivore kills scattered across its grasslands. According to Pobiner, even though it is a modern landscape and environment, it isn't much different than some of the landscapes that early human ancestors inhabited millions of years ago.
"The site is a great analogue for the kinds of African savanna environments where hominins are thought to have lived," said Pobiner. "The habitats - both types and varieties - were probably similar, and in this particular place, lions were the dominant predator. This may have been very much like past carnivore communities during the time our ancestors were starting to eat meat from larger animals, when we have evidence that felids - ancient lions, leopards, and three species of sabertoothed cats - lived alongside our ancestors and may have been the dominant kinds of carnivores at this time." She points to ancient sites such as Koobi Fora and Olduvai Gorge in East Africa that have yielded evidence of the earliest stone tools, with ancient environments very similar to that of present-day Ol Pejeta where big felids coexisted with humans.
A typical day in the field for Pobiner would begin with listening to a short wave radio for any mention from the conservancy about spotting lions or hearing them roar during the night - particularly if they were eating prey. On a lucky day, she would drive her Land Cruiser along with an armed guard out to the lion site and then simply stop to observe them at a safe distance while they ate. The armed guard was critical. "I didn't want to become prey myself - to be charged by an elephant, rhino, buffalo, or other angry ungulate," she said. About one hour after the lions were done and had left the scene, she and her assisting guard would finally approach the kill, meticulously document the remains with photographs and notes, and then pick up the carcass and place it into the back of the Land Cruiser. Later, another assistant would carefully remove the meat from the bones with wooden tools so as not to make any marks that might be confused with tooth marks, and then boil the bones clean. Once the bones were dry, they would be ready for further study.
Apart from potentially angry ungulates, the work was not without other challenges.
"It turns out lions don't kill things all that often," Pobiner says. "So getting a large enough sample size was challenging. Another challenge was sometimes having difficulty getting around to get to the carcasses even with my sturdy vehicle during the rainy season when it got really muddy or if I inadvertently drove into a warthog burrow."
For her efforts, however, Pobiner's work has its rewards. Like others before her, this study could hold answers to questions related to the ongoing debate about early human behavior before the advent of more modern hunting tools and techniques. The debate has revolved around the 'man the hunter' hypothesis, which suggests that early humans who lived as much as two million or more years ago procured their meat needs primarily through hunting, versus the 'man the scavenger' hypothesis, which proposes that the early humans procured these needs mostly by scavenging the remains left by other preying carnivores, such as lions, sabertoothed cats, hyenas, and other animals. Subsumed within the 'man the scavenger' hypothesis has been the question of whether these early humans scavenged primarily as aggressive, confrontational, "power" scavengers who competed with the other carnivores for first access to the prey (such as scaring or beating off a lion from its hunted and killed prey), or as 'passive' scavengers who waited until other carnivores got their first prime cuts and then safely went in to pick the carcass for the scraps after the other big carnivores had left the scene. Specifically, Pobiner's study results indicated that, even after the other large carnivores had their complete fill of the prey and left the carcass to the elements, there would have been enough meat in the scraps to provide a decent meal for a scavenging hominin afterwards. In other words, early humans could have made a living as passive scavengers.
"The most surprising finding was simply the large quantity of meat that lions leave when they eat their kills, which was more than anyone had observed before," stated Pobiner. "In fact, the leftover meat from just one zebra kill made by lions could have provided almost 6,100 calories for our early human ancestors - that's the entire daily caloric requirements of almost three adult male Homo erectus individuals, or just over 11 Big Macs. Not bad for a "lowly" scavenger!"
"Part of the criticism of the idea of a scavenging niche is whether there would even be enough meat on a lion kill worth scavenging, especially "passively" scavenging - waiting for the lions to be completely finished rather than chasing them off their kill in "active" or "confrontational" scavenging. My research answers a resounding "yes" to that question."
Pobiner has clocked countless hours researching how and when eating meat, a key source of calories, protein and other nutrients, became an important factor in the ultimate evolutionary success of humans.
"Diet is such a crucial part of an organism's adaptation, and understanding when and how hominins started incorporating meat from large animals into their diets can give us insight into other key adaptations that characterize our lineage - brain size increase, body size increase, home range and group size increase, moving into novel habitats and environments, interactions with other predators, and sophisticated communication and planning, for instance," she said. "We went from being mostly prey to being the most dominant predator on earth, or at least one of them, in a mere 2.5 million years."
The detailed study report is published in the Journal of Human Evolution.

Source : http://popular-archaeology.com/issue/winter-01012015/article/study-lends-new-support-to-theory-that-early-humans-were-scavengers

 


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."

Source : http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/02/150224-africa-stone-tools-modern-humans-arabia-emiran-nubian-origins/

 




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.

Source : http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/02/2015/humans-may-have-migrated-out-of-africa-in-phases-based-on-the-weather

 


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.

Source : http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/02/2015/recording-endangered-archaeology-of-the-middle-east-and-north-africa

 


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.

Source : http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/02/2015/barley-and-wheat-residues-in-neolithic-cemeteries-of-central-sudan-and-nubia

 


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.

Source : http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/02/2015/research-continues-into-3000-year-old-nok-culture-of-sub-saharan-africa

 


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.

Source : http://phys.org/news/2015-01-archaeologist-sudan-nile-river-valley.html

 


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."

Source : http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-31022975

 


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.

Source : http://www.kent.ac.uk/news/environment/3803/early-human-ancestors-used-their-hands-like-modern-humans

 


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.

Source : http://popular-archaeology.com/issue/winter-01012015/article/earliest-known-stone-tools-planted-the-seeds-of-communication-and-language

 


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