Friday, February 23, 2018

The easternmost Middle Paleolithic (Mousterian) from Jinsitai Cave, North China

Feng Li, Steven L. Kuhn, Fuyou Chen, Yinghua Wang, John Southon , Fei Peng, Mingchao Shan, Chunxue Wang, Junyi Ge, Xiaomin Wang, Tala Yun, Xing Gao
Journal of Human Evolution
Volume 114, January 2018, Pages 76-84
(Link) open access


The dispersal of Neanderthals and their genetic and cultural interactions with anatomically modern humans and other hominin populations in Eurasia are critical issues in human evolution research. Neither Neanderthal fossils nor typical Mousterian assemblages have been reported in East Asia to date. Here we report on artifact assemblages comparable to western Eurasian Middle Paleolithic (Mousterian) at Jinsitai, a cave site in North China. The lithic industry at Jinsitai appeared at least 47–42 ka and persisted until around 40–37 ka. These findings expand the geographic range of the Mousterian-like industries at least 2000 km further to the east than what has been previously recognized. This discovery supplies a missing part of the picture of Middle Paleolithic distribution in Eurasia and also demonstrates the makers' capacity to adapt to diverse geographic regions and habitats of Eurasia.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Neanderthals and Modern Humans in the Indus Valley? The Middle and Late (Upper) Palaeolithic Settlement of Sindh, a Forgotten Region of the Indian Subcontinent

Paolo Biagi and Elisabetta Starnini
Springer Publishing
December 8th, 2017
(Link) not open access but available for purchase for $30


This paper discusses the Middle and Late (Upper) Palaeolithic sites of Sindh (Pakistan), a region of the Indian Subcontinent of fundamental importance for the study of the spread of both Neanderthals and Anatomically Modern Humans (AMH) in south Asia.

Most of the Middle Palaeolithic assemblages known to date were collected during the geological surveys carried out during the 1970s in Lower Sindh by Professor A.R. Khan, and the short visits paid to Upper Sindh by B. Allchin. More finds were discovered by the Italian Archaeological Mission during the last 30 years mainly at Ongar, near Hyderabad (Lower Sindh), and the Rohri Hills, near Rohri (Upper Sindh).

The presence of characteristic Levallois Mousterian assemblages at Ongar, and other sites west of the Indus River, opens new perspectives to the study of the dispersal of Neanderthal groups, whose south-easternmost spread has systematically been avoided by most authors.

Although the presence of typical Levallois Mousterian assemblages attributed to Neanderthals has been recorded from Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and former Soviet Central Asia, the presence of similar complexes in the Indian Subcontinent is very scarce. The occurrence of typical Levallois cores, flakes, blades, points, Mousterian scrapers and one Mousterian point at Ongar is suggested to mark the south-easternmost limit of this cultural aspect. In contrast, the Middle Palaeolithic of the Indian Subcontinent is mainly characterized by unretouched flake assemblages and scrapers. Levallois points and flakes have already been described as a minor component of the so-called “Late Soan” complexes of the Punjab along the same western bank of the Indus in north Pakistan.

Even more complex is the definition of the earliest Late (Upper) Palaeolithic assemblages in the study region. In contrast with what previously suggested, Late (Upper) Palaeolithic sites are quite common in some areas of Lower Sindh, among which are the Mulri Hills (Karachi) and Jhimpir (Thatta). The assemblages from Karachi region sites are characterized by subconical cores with bladelet detachments, curved, backed points, bladelets, lunates of different shape and size, and, in a few cases, a high percentage of burins. The situation in Upper Sindh is absolutely different. The Rohri Hills yielded evidence of an impressive number of Late (Upper) Palaeolithic flint workshops, characterized by subconical bladelet and bladelet-like flakelet cores, and impressive amounts of debitage products. A similar situation has been recorded also from Ongar (Milestone 101), where modern limestone quarrying still underway has destroyed all the archaeological sites.

To conclude: Sindh is a very important region for the study of the Palaeolithic of the Indian Subcontinent and its related territories. It is unfortunate that our knowledge of this important territory is very scarce, and its archaeological heritage is under systematic destruction. 

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Ancient human DNA: How sequencing the genome of a boy from Ballito Bay changed human history

Marlize Lombard, Mattias Jakobsson, Carina Schlebusch
South African Journal of Science
January/February 2018
(Link) pdf

From the article: 

"The context of the three Stone Age hunter–gatherers (who displayed no recent admixture with migrating farmers and pastoralists), coupled with the high-quality DNA coverage obtained for the boy from Ballito Bay, provided us with the unique opportunity to recalculate the genetic time depth for our species (Homo sapiens) to between 350 000 and 260 000 years ago. Previously, the deepest genetic split was considered to have been between about 160 000 and 100 000 years ago.  And, based on fossil material from Ethiopia, the oldest modern humans were thought to have lived about 190 000 years ago in East Africa. Our work demonstrates that it is the context of human remains that matters when looking at potential deep splits in our lineage, and not their age. However, full-genome data from older remains may yet reveal more surprising outcomes. For example, any additional gene flow into southern African Stone Age populations, predating 2000 years ago, will increase the time depth of the first H. sapiens population split."

"The new genetic split-time estimate1 coincides with the interpretation of fossil material from Morocco in North Africa, dated to about 300 000 years ago16, which is seen as anatomically transitional between archaic and modern H. sapiens. It is also consistent with the age of the Florisbad skull that was found in the Free State, South Africa, dated to 260 000 years ago.  The Florisbad remains were discovered with Middle Stone Age artifacts, and have been referred to as archaic H. sapiens, representing a combination of archaic and modern characteristics with a cranial volume similar to that of modern humans of about 1300 mL. Other human remains from South Africa dating to between 300 000 and 200 000 years ago are those from Hoedjiespunt, currently ascribed to H. heidelbergensis, because although they are morphologically modern, they seemed larger than modern Africans."

The Kocabaş hominin (Denizli Basin, Turkey) at the crossroads of Eurasia: New insights from morphometric and cladistic analyses

Amélie Vialet, Sandrine Prat, Patricia Will, Mehmet Cihat Alçiçek
Comptes Rendus Palevol
3 February 2018
(Link) open access


The Kocabaş skullcap (Denizli Basin), dated between 1.2 and 1.6 Ma, is the only ancient hominin fossil from Turkey and is part of discussions focusing on the first settlement outside the African continent. Our morphometric study tends to link this specimen with the African fossils, Homo ergaster and early Homo erectus, and to distinguish it from the specimens from Dmanisi and Asian Homo erectus. These results are confirmed by a cladistic analysis, which shows a separation of Kocabaş from the Eurasian clade comprising the Dmanisi hominins and grouping it with the African fossils dated to around 1 Ma (KNM-OL 45500, Daka-Bouri BouVP2/66, Buia UA31). As in the Kocabaş fossil, the divergence of the frontal bone is not very marked on these latter fossils and the temporal lines are separated on the parietal bone. The Kocabaş skull seems to point to a different evolutionary history than that of the Dmanisi fossils, and could reflect a later “out-of-Africa” expansion.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The biomechanical significance of the frontal sinus in Kabwe 1 (Homo heidelbergensis)

Ricardo Miguel Godinho, Paul O'Higgins
Journal of Human Evolution
Volume 114, January 2018, Pages 141-153
(Link) open access


Paranasal sinuses are highly variable among living and fossil hominins and their function(s) are poorly understood. It has been argued they serve no particular function and are biological ‘spandrels’ arising as a structural consequence of changes in associated bones and/or soft tissue structures. In contrast, others have suggested that sinuses have one or more functions, in olfaction, respiration, thermoregulation, nitric oxide production, voice resonance, reduction of skull weight, and craniofacial biomechanics. Here we assess the extent to which the very large frontal sinus of Kabwe 1 impacts on the mechanical performance of the craniofacial skeleton during biting. It may be that the browridge is large and the sinus has large trabecular struts traversing it to compensate for the effect of a large sinus on the ability of the face to resist forces arising from biting. Alternatively, the large sinus may have no impact and be sited where strains that arise from biting would be very low. If the former is true, then infilling of the sinus would be expected to increase the ability of the skeleton to resist biting loads, while removing the struts might have the opposite effect. To these ends, finite element models with hollowed and infilled variants of the original sinus were created and loaded to simulate different bites. The deformations arising due to loading were then compared among different models and bites by contrasting the strain vectors arising during identical biting tasks. It was found that the frontal bone experiences very low strains and that infilling or hollowing of the sinus has little effect on strains over the cranial surface, with small effects over the frontal bone. The material used to infill the sinus experienced very low strains. This is consistent with the idea that frontal sinus morphogenesis is influenced by the strain field experienced by this region such that it comes to lie entirely within a region of the cranium that would otherwise experience low strains. This has implications for understanding why sinuses vary among hominin fossils.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

A reassessment of the Montmaurin-La Niche mandible (Haute Garonne, France) in the context of European Pleistocene human evolution

Amélie Vialet, Mario Modesto-Mata, María Martinón-Torres, Marina Martínez de Pinillos,  José-María Bermúdez de Castro
PLOS ONE, January 16, 2018


We here present a comparative study of the Montmaurin-LN Middle Pleistocene mandible (Haute-Garonne, France). This mandible, of which its right and left molar series are preserved in situ, was found in La Niche cave (Montmaurin’s karst system) in 1949, and was first attributed to the ‘Mindel-Riss’ interglacial (= MIS 9 to 11) based on its geological context. Later studies based on geological and faunal evidence have attributed the Montmaurin-LN mandible to MIS 7. Following a detailed morphological and metric comparative study of the mandible in the 1970s, it was interpreted in the light of a still limited fossil record and the prevailing paradigm back then. Waiting for geochronological studies in the forthcoming years, here we review the main morphological and metrical features of this mandible and its molars, which have been reassessed in the framework of a remarkably enlarged Pleistocene fossil record since the mandible was first described, and our current, more in-depth understanding of human evolution in Europe. Using a selection of mandibular features with potential taxonomic signal we have found that the Montmaurin-LN mandible shares only a few derived traits with Neandertals. Our analyses reveal that this mandible is more closely related to the ancient specimens from the African and Eurasian Early and Middle Pleistocene, particularly due to the presence of primitive features of the Homo clade. In contrast, the external morphology of the molars is clearly similar to that of Neandertals. The results are assessed in the light of the present competing hypotheses used to explain the European hominin fossil record.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Dragon Bone Hill: The Ice-Age Saga of Homo Erectus

Noel Thomas Boaz, Russell L. Ciochon                             
Oxford University Press; February 16, 2004
(Link) Amazon

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The fossil teeth of the Peking Man

Song Xing, María Martinón-Torres, José María Bermúdez de Castro
Nature Scientific Reports, volume 8, Article number: 2066 (2018)
(Link) open access
This study provides new original data, including the endostructure of most Zhoukoudian H. erectus teeth preserved to date, since the publication of Black in 1927 and Weidenreich in 1937. The new evidence ratifies the similarities of Zhoukoudian with other East Asian mid-Middle Pleistocene hominins such as Hexian and Yiyuan, and allows defining a dental pattern potentially characteristic of this population commonly referred to as classic H. erectus. Given the possible chronological overlaps of classic H. erectus with other archaic Homo, the characterization of this group becomes a key issue when deciphering the taxonomy and evolutionary scenario of the Middle Pleistocene hominins in East Asia. Internally, the most remarkable feature of Zhoukoudian teeth is the highly crenulated enamel-dentine junction (EDJ) and its imprint on the roof of the pulp cavity. So far, this “dendrite-like” EDJ has been found only in East Asia Middle Pleistocene hominins although a large group of samples were assessed, and it could be useful to dentally define classic H. erectus in China. The crenulated EDJ surface, together with the stout roots and the taurodontism could be a mechanism to withstand high biomechanical demand despite a general dentognathic reduction, particularly of the crowns, in these populations.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Early Middle Palaeolithic culture in India around 385–172 ka reframes Out of Africa models

Nature volume 554, pages 97101 (01 February 2018)

The earliest modern humans outside Africa

    Israel Hershkovitz,
    Gerhard W. Weber,
    Rolf Quam,
    Mathieu Duval,
    Rainer Grün,
    Leslie Kinsley,
    Avner Ayalon,
    Miryam Bar-Matthews,
    Helene Valladas,
    Norbert Mercier,
    Juan Luis Arsuaga,
    María Martinón-Torres,
    José María Bermúdez de Castro,
    Cinzia Fornai,
    Laura Martín-Francés,
    Rachel Sarig,
    Hila May,
    Viktoria A. Krenn,
    Viviane Slon,
    Laura Rodríguez,
    Rebeca Garcia,
    Carlos Lorenzo,
    Jose Miguel Carretero,
    Amos Frumkin,
    Ruth Shahack-Gross,
    Daniella E. Bar-Yosef Mayer,
    Yaming Cui,
    Xinzhi Wu,
    Natan Peled,
    Iris Groman-Yaroslavski,
    Lior Weissbrod,
    Reuven Yeshurun,
    Alexander Tsatskin,
    Yossi Zaidner,
    Mina Weinstein-Evron
26 Jan 2018: Vol. 359, Issue 6374, pp. 456-459
DOI: 10.1126/science.aap8369


To date, the earliest modern human fossils found outside of Africa are dated to around 90,000 to 120,000 years ago at the Levantine sites of Skhul and Qafzeh. A maxilla and associated dentition recently discovered at Misliya Cave, Israel, was dated to 177,000 to 194,000 years ago, suggesting that members of the Homo sapiens clade left Africa earlier than previously thought. This finding changes our view on modern human dispersal and is consistent with recent genetic studies, which have posited the possibility of an earlier dispersal of Homo sapiens around 220,000 years ago. The Misliya maxilla is associated with full-fledged Levallois technology in the Levant, suggesting that the emergence of this technology is linked to the appearance of Homo sapiens in the region, as has been documented in Africa.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Conversation at Sithonia

A view of Holy Mount Athos from Sithonia, looking east

This August, I spent a few days in Sithonia visiting a relative on my Greek husband's side.  We got to talking about history (of course), and about the shepherds of Northern Greece, and their yearly movements across hundreds miles as they sought green pastures for their flocks.  Sithonia happens to be one of three fingers that reach out into the Aegean Sea from the Northern Greek mainland.  The two others are Kassandra and Athos.  Athos is the land of Mount Athos, the Holy Mountain of Christian Orthodoxy, the place of many Orthodox Monasteries, and homeland of Aristotle.

As it turns out, Kassandra and Sithonia were until quite recently, the wintering pastures of shepherds who would drive their flocks down from summer pastures in the Pindus mountains, to this temperate wintering ground, more than a hundred miles.  It would take them about a month, and on their journey, they would yearly drive their flocks through Thessaloniki in a ceremonial weeklong parade each October.  They did this until 1970.

This got us thinking about human models of prehistory that assume that somehow people where confined to limited territories over thousands of years.  The shepherds, and their descendants, know better.

My Greek relative then pulled out a book and showed me how Plutarch had written about the British Isles, and that these far distant places were well known by Greeks, even by common people (certainly shepherds).

Domesticated sheep bones appear in Greece approximately 10,000 years ago.  There is no reason to assume that if shepherds were moving across hundreds of miles each year within the last hundred years, that they would not also have done so 10,000 years ago.  Early Neolithic people would easily have spanned an area extending over thousands of miles in the thousand or more years in which early domestication processes occurred.

This is why I find these discussions about the "origin" of the Neolithic, or for that matter, the "origin" of Indo-European languages, to be so utterly misguided.  And looking farther back, there is no reason to think that Pleistocene hunters weren't also highly mobile, and confined only by their ability to find shelter, food and water.

We will never find an origin limited to a few hundred miles for these.  The Neolithic did not "begin" in Anatolia any more than in the Balkans or the Taurus Zagros Mountains.  Nor can the origin of "Indo-European" languages be found in a geographic area limited by a few hundred, or even a few thousand, miles.  The Recent African Origin for modern humans is likely also too simplistic, for the same reason.