The ecology of Neanderthals is a pressing question in the study of hominin evolution. Diet appears to have played a prominent role in their adaptation to Eurasia. Based on isotope and zooarchaeological studies, Neanderthal diet has been reconstructed as heavily meat-based and generally similar across different environments. This image persists, despite recent studies suggesting more plant use and more variation. However, we have only a fragmentary picture of their dietary ecology, and how it may have varied among habitats, because we lack broad and environmentally representative information about their use of plants and other foods. To address the problem, we examined the plant microremains in Neanderthal dental calculus from five archaeological sites representing a variety of environments from the northern Balkans, and the western, central and eastern Mediterranean. The recovered microremains revealed the consumption of a variety of non-animal foods, including starchy plants. Using a modeling approach, we explored the relationships among microremains and environment, while controlling for chronology. In the process, we compared the effectiveness of various diversity metrics and their shortcomings for studying microbotanical remains, which are often morphologically redundant for identification. We developed Minimum Botanical Units as a new way of estimating how many plant types or parts are present in a microbotanical sample. In contrast to some previous work, we found no evidence that plant use is confined to the southern-most areas of Neanderthal distribution. Although interpreting the eco-geographic variation is limited by the incomplete preservation of dietary micro remains, it is clear that plant exploitation was a widespread and deeply rooted Neanderthal subsistence strategy, even if they were predominately game hunters. Given the limited dietary variation across Neanderthal range in time and space in both plant and animal food exploitation, we argue that vegetal consumption was a feature of a generally static dietary niche.
Dental calculus indicates widespread plant use within the stable Neanderthal dietary niche
Robert C. Power, Domingo C. Salazar-García, Mauro Rubini, Andrea Darlas, Katerina Harvati, Michael Walker, Jean-Jacques Hublin, Amanda G.Henry
It has been a while since I posted on my blog and so out of guilt I’m back again to give you all a new post. This time I want to review a book published in 1987 on the political history of Palaeoanthropology. Written by biochemist Roger Lewin (1944 – Present) it charts the history of the science of Palaeoanthropology and is a must read for anyone interested in the origins of the genus Homo. In 1989, Lewin won the Royal Society Prizes for Science Books, for this very work. Many palaeoanthropologists at the top today could use with reading this book, to help them reflect on their own interaction with other workers in the field. The book was later revised in 1997, which at the time of posting was 21 years ago. There is no question that the field in need of an update to see if the field has changed or remained the same. I hope we will see this 3rd edition in the near future. Among other topics there is no doubt that the recent sexual misconduct of some scientists will need to be discussed in that new book. Let’s talk about the book. The title is very appropriate but when I first heard of it many years ago, I couldn’t help but bring out the immature side in me and snigger at the close similarity of the title with “Boners of Contentions”. I pondered on the potential look of the T-shirt, I could have printed. Anyway, the book covers a number of important moments in palaeoanthropological history.
In no particular order, Lewin discusses the storm surrounding the Taung Child, Ramapithecus, the KBS Tuff, the famous Australopithecus afarensis A.L. 288-1 and finally the work of the Leakey, specifically the father and the son. Here we see human nature at its worst usually, particularly when we get emotionally invested in a fossil or hypothesis or even flawed radiometric dating. Human evolutionary research, whether the workers in the field, like it or not, is storytelling. Storytelling based on evidence, I might add, but it possesses shades of science fiction. The hominin fossil record is extremely fragmentary and the stories told by these fossils are also extremely fragmentary. They are necessarily weak and this is not particularly useful in a field, where the scientists develop emotional attachment to their pet hypotheses. Even in the light of new evidence many still ignore due to the embarrassment of admitting you are wrong, based on the new evidence. In Palaeoanthropology, admitting you were wrong has been virtually impossible. There is really only one recorded case of a straight up “I was wrong and someone else was right”, that honour goes to Arthur Keith and his review of Raymond Darts Taung Child.
The book allows me to reflect on my own strongly held convictions that Homo heidelbergensis is a valid taxon, at a time when palaeoanthropologists generally shy away from using it. I have imbued it with my own emotional attachment and will remain unconvinced that it should be invalidated. But equally, those who argue the latter, are blinded by their own biases. They do forget that the fossil record of the species is incredibly sparse, with only a handful of skulls representing it. Admittedly, they have a point regarding the Mauer Mandible as the holotype of the species. Ideally, the holotype should be a complete skeleton, but the early science of palaeoanthroplogy was not rigorous in how it proposed new species. So, we are stuck with a mandible in a hypodigm entirely of crania, you read right one mandible and a handful of crania. This, I would argue is no grounds to invalidate a species. In debates, the emotional investment, gets in the way of objective thought and they can get quite heated. Thankfully, I’m not the only palaeoanthropology student indulging in Pro-Heidelbergensis camp. In 2017, Roksandic et al., conducted a revision of the representatives of Homo heidelbergensis. Bones of Contention has allowed me to at the very least be aware of my flaws when it comes to interpreting the fossil record, but with the above paragraph, I’ve really only scratched the surface and it will require a separate essay on the topic for the future.
Bones of Contention is a well written book and while it loosely follows event chronologically, Lewin does compare and contrast most of the events, concluding with a theme that binds these momentous events together. The reminder that we are telling stories is the key thought all palaeoanthropologists should be aware of. I’m aware that the latter is quite a risky statement, but in order for the palaeoanthropology student to be as objective as possible, we need to keep reminding ourselves of that. Many at the top, I suspect, will laugh at this as obsurd. One could argue that the science is far more rigorous in every way today than the time Eoanthropus dawsonii was first unveiled to the world. The Humans that study the fossils, well they have not changed. We are still flawed scientists, whether we like to admit it or not. This is uncomfortable for me to say, but it is true. In the early 1900’s, scientists saw hominin evolution as a variation of the chain of being, a line from ancient apes to human’s, today a variation of multiregional evolutionism is the hip new hypothesis with the “river delta” as its logo.
One topic that the book does not cover is the nature of public engagement of palaeoanthropology contrasted with scientific process associated with palaeoanthropology. For me, these are two different worlds, incredibly incompatible and one scoffs at the other in righteous indignation. There will be no way to bridge the gap between the two. Yes, some seem to be bridging this gap, but if you really dig deeper, the reality is very different. Science is an ever shifting process of evidence evaluation, something that is incompatible with the requirement of certainty in the press. I often cringe at the often used phrase that “textbooks will have to be re-written on palaeoanthropology”. This comes as no surprise to any palaeoanthropology student, but this statement implies that palaeoanthropologists had figured out the evolutionary steps hominins took over the past seven million years to get to where we are today. Far from it and this is what angers a lot of palaeoanthropology students and lecturers. The media need a hook and unfortunately the most effective hook to draw the public in is the above statement. You can’t blame them for reaching as wide an audience as possible. But this has meant that palaeoanthropologists in particular are cautious when they engage with the media. The seemingly innocuous move to record conference talks on new scientific findings is very risky from the point of view of the speaker. Choice of words at a presentation on record and the choice of words on the academic paper may be subtly different but they have the potential to ruin the academic standing of the speaker. Additionally, journals have strict embargo rules on when engagement with the media can begin. Break these rules and the paper will never be published. There will remain a tension between these two worlds for many centuries to come. I hope that the 3rd edition of Bones of Contention will cover this in more detail than I have here.
The only criticism I have of the book is the placement of the black and white photographs in the book. It would be more beneficial to have them scattered throughout the book, associated with their appropriate chapters, instead of combining them together in two groups in the centre of the book. This is not much of a criticism, but it does demonstrate the difficulty I had in my attempt to find one. It is an excellent book. To use a quote from Leonard to Sheldon in the Big Bang Theory, reading this book “is like looking into an obnoxious little mirror”. It help us re-examine ourselves and re-focuses our thoughts on a very controversial science.
Alan Cyril Walker (born August 23, 1938) died on November 20, 2017, of pancreatic cancer. He was a world-renowned paleoanthropologist and the recipient of numerous awards for his extraordinary scientific achievements, including a “genius” award from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and lifetime awards such as the Charles R. Darwin Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Association of Physical Anthropologists and the Leighton Wilkie prize of the Center for Research into the Anthropological Foundations of Technology (CRAFT) and the Stone Age Institute, Indiana University, and the International Fondation Fyssen Prize in Paris. He was one of the only scholars in the world elected to the Royal Academy (U.K.) as well as the United States National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Dr. Walker was born in Leicester, England, the second of four sons of Cyril Walker, a carpenter, and Edith Tidd Walker, a housewife. He was preceded in death by his parents, his first wife Patricia Nicholson, and a younger brother, Gerald Walker. He is survived and mourned by his elder brother, J. Trevor Walker and his younger brother Michael D. Walker, both of whom livie in England, his loving second wife of 42 years, anthropologist and author Pat Shipman, of Moncure, N.C. , his son Simon B. Walker, and his son’s wife Shellene Wellnitz Walker, and his granddaughters Bryn and Meghan Walker of Morrisville, N. C. In addition, he is remembered fondly by many of his former students and colleagues in several countries.
Alan Walker earned an undergraduate degree with honors in the Natural Sciences (Geology, Zoology, Mineralogy, Petrology, and Palaeontology). Following his childhood fascination with animals and fossils, Walker obtained a grant to attend the University of London, earning a Ph.D. in Anatomy and Palaeontology under the mentorship of John Napier. His thesis topic was a study of the functional anatomy and behavior of living and fossil lemurs of Madagascar. His work had a major influence on the field, emphasizing deducing the behaviors of extinct species from living ones to paleontology. He later received an honorary D.Sc. from the University of Chicago.
For much of his career, Dr. Walker was a brilliant teacher of human gross anatomy, training thousands of future physicians. Institutions where he worked included the Royal Free Hospital, School of Medicine, London (19165), Makerere University College, Kampala, Uganda (1965-1969), the University of Nairobi Medical School, Kenya (1969-1974), Harvard Medical School (1973-1978), and The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine (1978-1995). In 1995 he moved to The Pennsylvania State University to teach anatomy and biology to undergraduate and graduate students, retiring in 2010 as an Evan Pugh Professor of Anthropology & Biology.
Throughout his academic career, Alan Walker was known for his kindness and generosity to students, for the tremendous breadth of his interests and knowledge, and for pioneering new approaches to evolutionary problems. He was instrumental in developing the field of dental microwear to deduce diets of extinct species and was among the first to the study of the structure of the inner ear of fossils to understand their patterns of locomotion and movement of extinct animals.
He was also known for his collaborations in finding fossils with Richard and Meave Leakey in Kenya. One of their most important discoveries was the finding, excavation, and analysis of the most complete ever skeleton of Homo erectus from Nariokotome, Kenya. This skeleton revealed the startlingly tall and lanky stature of a youngster of the species that first migrated out of the African continent. His research also had a major impact on the study of fossil apes, following his discovery of thousands of bones of several extinct apelike creatures on Rusinga and Mfwangano Islands in Lake Victoria, Kenya.
In accordance with his wishes, there will be no funeral or memorial services. Condolences may be sent to his wife, Dr. Pat Shipman, at 3140 Chatham Church Road., Moncure NC 27559 or (firstname.lastname@example.org). In lieu of flowers, friends and family in the U.S. may send donations to St John’s College, Cambridge, at www.cantab.org/giveonline or, in the U.K., to https://johnian.joh.cam.ac.uk/giving/donate.
John Hawks discusses the latest news on the Rising Star Project:
Africa’s richest fossil hominin site has revealed more of its treasure. It’s been a year and a half since scientists announced that a new hominin species, which they called Homo naledi, had been discovered in the Rising Star Cave outside Johannesburg.
Now they say they have established and published the age of the original naledi fossils that garnered global headlines in 2015. Homo naledi lived sometime between 335 and 236 thousand years ago, making it relatively young.
They’ve also announced the discovery of a second chamber in the Rising Star cave system, which contained additional Homo naledi specimens. These include a child and the partial skeleton of an adult male with a well-preserved skull. They have named the skeleton “Neo” – a Sesotho word meaning “a gift”.
The Conversation Africa’s Science Editor Natasha Joseph asked Professor John Hawks, a member of the team, to explain the story behind these finds.
To an ordinary person, 236 000 years is a very long time ago. Why does the team suggest that in fact, Homo naledi is a “young” species?
The course of human evolution has taken the last seven million years since our ancestors diverged from those of chimpanzees and bonobos. The first two-thirds of that long history, called australopiths, were apelike creatures who developed the trick of walking upright on two legs.
Around two million years ago some varieties of hominins took the first real steps in a human direction. They’re the earliest clear members of our genus, Homo, and belong to species like Homo habilis, Homo erectus and Homo rudolfensis.
Homo naledi looks in many ways like these first members of Homo. It’s even more primitive than these species in many ways, and has a smaller brain than any of them. People outside our team who have studied the fossils mostly thought they should be around the same age. A few had the radical idea that H. naledi might have lived more recently, maybe around 900,000 years ago.
Nobody thought that these fossils could actually have come from the same recent time interval when modern humans were evolving, a mere 236 to 335 thousand years ago.
How do you figure out a fossil’s age?
We applied six different methods. The most valuable of these were electron spin resonance (ESR) dating, and uranium-thorium (U-Th) dating. ESR relies on the fact that teeth contain tiny crystals, and the electron energy in these crystals is affected by natural radiation in the ground over long periods of time after fossils are buried.
U-Th relies on the fact that water drips into caves and forms layers of calcite, which contain traces of uranium. The radioactive fraction of uranium decays into thorium slowly over time. So the proportion of thorium compared to uranium gives an estimate of the time since the calcite layers formed. One of these calcite deposits, called a flowstone, formed above the H. naledi fossils in the Dinaledi Chamber. That flowstone helps to establish the minimum age: the fossils must be older than the flowstone above them.
For these two methods, our team engaged two separate labs and asked them to process and analyse samples without talking to each other. Their processes produced the same results. This gives us great confidence that the results are reliable.
What does the discovery of Homo naledi’s age mean for our understanding of human history and evolution?
For at least the past 100 years, anthropologists have assumed that most of the evolution of Homo was a story of progress: brains got bigger over time, technology became more sophisticated and teeth got smaller as people relied more upon cleverness to get better food and prepare it by cooking.
We thought that once culture really got started, our evolution was driven by a feedback loop – better food allowed bigger brains, more clever adaptations, more sophisticated communication. That enabled better technology, which yielded more food, and so on like a snowball rolling downhill.
No other hominin species could compete with this human juggernaut. You would never see more than one form of human in a single part of the world, because the competition would be too intense. Other forms, like Neanderthals, existed within regions of the world apart from the mainstream leading to modern humans in Africa. But even they were basically human with large brains.
That thinking was wrong.
Africa south of the equator is the core of human evolutionary history. That’s where today’s human populations were most genetically diverse, and that diversity is just a small part of what once existed there. Different lineages of archaic humans once lived in this region. Anthropologists have found a few fossil remnants of these archaic populations. They’ve tried to connect those remnants in a straight line. But the genetic evidence suggests that they were much more complex, with deep divisions that occasionally intertwined.
H. naledi shows a lineage that existed for probably more than a million years, maybe two million years, from the time it branched from our family tree up to the last 300,000 years. During all this time, it lived in Africa with archaic lineages of humans, with the ancestors of modern humans, maybe with early modern humans themselves. It’s strikingly different from any of these other human forms, so primitive in many aspects. It represents a lost hominin community within which our species evolved.
I think we have to reexamine much of what we thought we knew about our shared evolutionary past in Africa. We know a lot of information from a few very tiny geographic areas. But the largest parts of the continent are unknown – they have no fossil record at all.
We’re working to change that, and as our team and others make new discoveries, I’m pretty sure we are going to find more lineages that have been hidden to us. H. naledi will not be the last.
The first Homo naledi discoveries were made in the Dinaledi Chamber. What led researchers to the second chamber? And what did you find there?
The Dinaledi Chamber is one of the most significant fossil finds in history. After excavating only a very tiny part of this chamber, the sample of hominin specimens is already larger than any other single assemblage in Africa.
The explorers who first found these bones, Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker, saw what the team was doing when they were excavating in the chamber. The pair realised that they might have seen a similar occurrence in another part of the cave system. The Rising Star system has more than two kilometres of mapped passages underground. In another deep chamber, accessed again through very tight underground squeezes, there were hominin bones exposed on the surface.
Our team first began systematic survey of this chamber, which we named the Lesedi Chamber, in 2014. For two years Marina Elliott led excavations, joined at times by most of the team’s other experienced underground excavators. They were working in a situation where bones are jammed into a tight blind tunnel. Only one excavator can fit at a time, belly-down, feet sticking out. It is an incredibly challenging excavation circumstance.
The most significant discovery is a partial skeleton of H. naledi, with parts of the arms, legs, a lot of the spine and many other pieces, as well as a beautifully complete skull and jaw. We named this skeleton “Neo”. We also recovered fragments of at least one other adult individual, and one child, although we suspect these bones may come from one or two more individuals.
Is there a way for people to view these discoveries in person?
On May 25 – Africa Day – Maropeng at the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site outside Johannesburg will open a new exhibit with the discoveries from the Lesedi Chamber and the Dinaledi Chamber together for the first time.
For people outside South Africa, the data from our three-dimensional scans of the new Lesedi fossils are available online.
Anyone can download the 3D models, and people with access to a 3D printer can print their own physical copies of the new fossils, as well as the fossils from the Dinaledi Chamber. It’s a great way for people to see the evidence for themselves.
A team of scientists recently announced an extraordinary claim that the 130,000 Cerutti Mastodon was manipulated by hominins.
“I have read that paper and I was astonished by it,” archaeologist Donald Grayson of the University of Washington. “I was astonished not because it is so good, but because it is so bad. Cracked bones and chipped stones at a fossil site might mean anything”, said Grayson. “It is quite another thing to show that people, and people alone, could have produced those modifications. The study doesn’t take that step, he said, “making this a very easy claim to dismiss.”
Gary Haynes of the University of Nevada Reno had this to say, “The paper states that the bones were being exposed by a backhoe. These pieces of heavy equipment weigh seven to fifteen tons or more, and their weight on the sediments would have crushed bones and rocks against each other.” When asked, Holen, the study leader, said that it “was very easy to tell the difference” between fractures made by stone hammers and those seen in bones crushed by bulldozers. He did not elaborate on how the differences manifest. “He’s pretty much dead wrong — there’s no definable difference,” Haynes said. A similar fossil dispute broke out in 2015 over a 24,000 year old mammoth in Maryland, he noted, shown to be fractured by heavy equipment. Also troubling, the “hammer” and “anvil” stones described in the paper don’t unequivocally look like tools, said Michael Waters of Texas A&M’s Center for the Study of the First Americans.
Michael Waters of Texas A&M’s Center for the Study of the First Americans noted that the “hammer” and “anvil” stones described in the paper don’t unequivocally look like tools. The study also runs afoul of the mounting genetic evidence, which indicates that the first people to reach the Americas and eventually give rise to modern Native Americans arrived no earlier than 25,000 years ago.”
When fossil hunter Bernard Ngeneo came across the remains of this fossil, only the upper portion of the orbits were protruding from the ground. Excavation revealed one of the best preserved skulls of this time period, and one of the most striking early human fossils of any age.
KNM-ER 3733 represents a mature female of the early human species Homo erectus. The sex identification comes from a comparison of the anatomical features of her face with several other crania from Koobi Fora: KNM-ER 3883 (male), and KNM-WT 15000 (also male), found on the opposite side of Lake Turkana. The features of KNM-ER 3733 are markedly less robust. It’s known to be an adult on the basis of the cranial sutures (which were fully closed), the extent of the wear on the teeth, and the eruption of the third molars before the individual’s death.
People are fascinated by the use of forensic science to solve crimes. Any science can be forensic when used in the criminal and civil justice system – biology, genetics and chemistry have been applied in this way. Now something rather special is happening: the scientific skill sets developed while investigating crime scenes, homicides and mass fatalities are being put to use outside the courtroom. Forensic anthropology is one field where this is happening.
Loosely defined, forensic anthropology is the analysis of human remains for the purpose of establishing identity in both living and dead individuals. In the case of the dead this often focuses on analyses of the skeleton. But any and all parts of the physical body can be analysed. The forensic anthropologist is an expert at assessing biological sex, age at death, living height and ancestral affinity from the skeleton.
Our newest research has extended forensic science’s reach from the present into prehistory. In the study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, we applied common forensic anthropology techniques to investigate the biological sex of artists who lived long before the invention of the written word.
We specifically focused on those who produced a type of art known as a hand stencil. We applied forensic biometrics to produce statistically robust results which, we hope, will offset some of the problems archaeological researchers have encountered in dealing with this ancient art form.
Sexing rock art
Ancient hand stencils were made by blowing, spitting or stippling pigment onto a hand while it was held against a rock surface. This left a negative impression on the rock in the shape of the hand.
These stencils are frequently found alongside pictorial cave art created during a period known as the Upper Palaeolithic, which started roughly 40 000 years ago.
Archaeologists have long been interested in such art. The presence of a human hand creates a direct, physical connection with an artist who lived millennia ago. Archaeologists have often focused on who made the art – not the individual’s identity, but whether the artist was male or female.
Until now, researchers have focused on studying hand size and finger length to address the artist’s sex. The size and shape of the hand is influenced by biological sex as sex hormones determine the relative length of fingers during development, known as 2D:4D ratios.
But many ratio-based studies applied to rock art have generally been difficult to replicate. They’ve often produced conflicting results. The problem with focusing on hand size and finger length is that two differently shaped hands can have identical linear dimensions and ratios.
To overcome this we adopted an approach based on forensic biometric principles. This promises to be both more statistically robust and more open to replication between researchers in different parts of the world.
The study used a branch of statistics called Geometric Morphometric Methods. The underpinnings of this discipline date back to the early 20th century. More recently computing and digital technology have allowed scientists to capture objects in 2D and 3D before extracting shape and size differences within a common spatial framework.
In our study we used experimentally produced stencils from 132 volunteers. The stencils were digitised and 19 anatomical landmarks were applied to each image. These correspond to features on the fingers and palms which are the same between individuals, as depicted in figure 2. This produced a matrix of x-y coordinates of each hand, which represented the shape of each hand as the equivalent of a map reference system.
We used a technique called Procrustes superimposition to move and translate each hand outline into the same spatial framework and scale them against each other. This made the difference between individuals and sexes objectively apparent.
Procrustes also allowed us to treat shape and size as discrete entities, analysing them either independently or together. Then we applied discriminant statistics to investigate which component of hand form could best be used to assess whether an outline was from a male or a female. After discrimination we were able to predict the sex of the hand in 83% of cases using a size proxy, but with over 90% accuracy when size and shape of the hand were combined.
An analysis called Partial Least Squares was used to treat the hand as discrete anatomical units; that is, palm and fingers independently. Rather surprisingly the shape of the palm was a much better indicator of the sex of the hand than the fingers. This goes counter to received wisdom.
This would allow us to predict sex in hand stencils which have missing digits – a common issue in Palaeolithic rock art – where whole or part fingers are often missing or obscured.
This study adds to the body of research that has already used forensic science to understand prehistory. Beyond rock art, forensic anthropology is helping to develop the emergent field of palaeo-forensics: the application of forensic analyses into the deep past.
On the 28th of November 1976, Eternal Leader of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, ordered the Kim Il Sung University to investigate the origins of the Korean people. Since then, both Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il have proposed hypotheses to explain the origin of the Korean people and their history. On the 28th of November 2016, exactly 40 years later, a National History Symposium was held in Kim Il Sung University to take account of all the research that had been conducted within the country until now.
The outside world has not been informed of these advances to a very clear level, but what we do know is that there is evidence that the Korean peninsula featured hominins by about the Upper Palaeolithic. According to the Pyongyang Times, Korean ancestors had settled down in the Taedong Basin around the present day capital Pyongyang “at the dawn of human history”.
University President, Thae Hyong Chol and Minister of Higher Education, Ri Hye Jong both attended, but the current Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un was not present.
A number of people spoke at the Symposium, including:
University Dean: Choe Su Nam,
Laboratory Technician: Han Kum Sik and
Deputy Director of the National Authority for the Protection of Cultural Heritage: Ro Chol Su,
Director of the Academy of Social Sciences: Son Su Ho
The ‘Black Hole’ of Palaeoanthropology is not a term you hear very often, but then again what is there to say about the biogeographic history of a 1.77 million square kilometer region (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran) with virtually no faunal, human or archaeological sites. At this point it would seem easy to resign yourself to the words of Timothy D. White at the dawn of the 21st century, that we are not going to find many more fossil hominins. The mark of a great palaeoanthropologist is to never give up that curiosity for the unknown. Since White’s depressing prediction, he has been roundhouse kicked to Wrongville, with the spectacular finds of Ethiopia, South Africa, Myanmar, China, Flores and much much more. We have learned so much thus far, don’t lets forget this. Sounds great but these inevitably throw up more questions than answers. And the ‘Black hole’ is a particularly hard nut to crack.
What does archaeology have to offer? Ethiopia features the earliest concrete evidence for hominin stone tool manufacture. At 2.6 million years of age it predates the earliest known human – Homo habilis – by less than 300,000 years years (Fossil Code: A.L. 666). Saudi Arabia has a rather rich representation of Mode 1 (Oldowan) stone tool clusters. If you don’t know to millimeter accuracy where the stone tool was found, or if it is a surface find then it is worthless to science. The Saudi sites were also used during the Holocene (11,700 years ago to present), begging the question how can you separate Early Pleistocene (2.5 million years ago to 700,000 years ago) from Holocene activity? At least we can tell that hominins took one route out of Africa. Stone tools similar to the Oldowan found at Perim Island supports the hypothesis that early hominins crossed the Bab al Mandab Strait (20 miles wide). Iran has probably the most depressing lack of archaeological evidence of the region. Isolated finds dominate, both the Oldowan and Acheulean records of Iran and few excavations have taken place. South of the Caspian Sea is the site of Ganj Par, which yielded 100 limestone tools within half a hectare. This assemblage shares similarities with those of Ubediya, Israel and the Oldupai Gorge (also known as the Olduvai Gorge), Tanzania. Turkey repeats much the same story. Of the 200 Palaeolithic sites, less than 25 have been even partially excavated. The majority are restricted to the fringes of the Anatolian plateau. None are any older than 1.3 million years of age, further supported by Argon-Argon dating of Kula, western Turkey to 1.24 million years of age. The site was the location of a palaeomeander which contained a solitary Quartz flake, 5 x 4 cm. Volcanic activity interfered with the palaeomeander and it was that lava flow that allowed the date to be so accurate. The take-home-message from Turkey is the earliest securely dated archaeological remains support the 1.1 million years calculated for the Kocabas skullcap, which shares affinities with OH 9 and KNM ER 3733, attributed to H. erectus. Debate continues as to its taxonomic status, but it does reflect a great deal of H. erectus characteristics. The Archaeology tells us that hominins with the ability to make stone tools were already out of Africa 1.8 million years ago, at the site of Dmanisi, Georgia.
It is the richest fossil hominin location at the ‘black hole’ fringe. The Fall of 2013 was just another milestone in sites long history of archaeological investigation. The discovered cranium (D4500) was reunited with its jaw (D2600) and the team of palaeoanthropologists led by David Lordkipandize concluded that the five individuals represented members of the same species, but retracted the classification of D2600 (Homo georgicus) for Homo erectus ergaster georgicus. This raised some eyebrows in the palaeoanthropological community, particularly Fred Spoor, palaeoanthropologist and lecturer at the UCL Department of Anthropology, who pointed out that such an action is not outlined in the code of zoological nomenclature. This is a minor debate in the palaeoanthropology, but most agree that Homo erectus exhibited a variation comparable to that seen in modern Homo sapiens today. Dmanisi is proof that hominins were already out of the African continent by 1.8 million years. Additionally, although the dating of the hominins of Java are in the doldrums, these specimens could be as much as 1.8 million years of age. Prior to that time some hominin species made it’s way north, but which one?
On the 23rd of January 1995, a French-Chadian team of palaeontologists discovered a fragment of fossil jaw (Fossil Code: KT 12/H1) lying on the gravel desert of northern Chad. The fossil (nicknamed “Abel”) could not be accurately dated, nevertheless stratigraphic layers nearby suggested it could as much as 3.5 million years of age. Back then, the river Bahr El Ghazal flowed into a 3 million square kilometer lake called Megachad. This hominin foraged on grasses that dominated the Koro Toro region. The palaeontologists gave “Abel” a new species name – Australopithecus bahrelghazali distinguishing it from another australopithecean – Australopithecus afarensis. That species lived in the eastern region of the continent, over 2,500 km from the Bahr El Ghazal site. The animal remains found in the stratigraphic layers of both regions were pretty much identical, which means the ecosystems were the same. Therefore, you can see why some palaeoanthropologists consider it plausible that “Abel” is just another Au. afarensis. This goes back to the argument that, what we are looking at here is just another variation of the same species. Either way, here we have australopitheceans in eastern and north central Africa. Theoretically, it is plausible for australopitheceans to have made their way into Arabia.
Every organism has a landscape format that they thrive within. Lions are quite at home in the savannah, Tigers frolick in the dense jungles of the Indian subcontinent and hominins, particularly australopitheceans, were quite at home in savannahs. If we are to prove that they made their way into Arabia, there should be an extension of savannah into the Eurasia 3-4 million years ago. Sadly we are not seeing this, but what do we see. The faunal record of Saudi Arabia is particularly fragmented and sparse. Western Turkey (Calta) 2.3 million years ago, saw Raccoons, Giraffes, Hippos and the extinct “Running” Hyena. Many associate Bethlehem with the Christian story, but few know that at about the same time, this region featured Raccoons, Sabre-Toothed Cats, Rhino, an ancestor to the Mammoth and ancestor to the modern boar. While 110 kilometers north of Bethlehem and 700,000 years later, Baboons lived south of the Lake of Tiberias, around Ubeidiya. Lakes were magnets for faunal activity and therefore hominin activity.
The An Nedfud desert of northern Saudi Arabia is classic wilderness today, 2 million years ago it was the hub of a diverse ecosystem with a lake as the centrepiece. The faunal remains were recovered from three localities and share similarities with the kind of fauna you would expect at Ubeidiya and the Oldupai Gorge. Hippos were found at these sites and since modern day counterparts prefer standing water to a depth of 5 meters, it gives an initial sense of the size of ‘Lake An Nedfud’. A lake capable of supporting fish life, but this is not the only lake to have supported faunal biodiversity in the ‘Black Hole’. ‘Lake Negev’ developed around 1.8 and disappeared around 1.5 million years ago under ever increasingly arid conditions. It supported fish populations and laid down 15 m thick sediments over 18 sq km². Besides these lakes, there were smaller lakes, Oases and springs that would have allowed hominins to hop, skip and jump out of Isis territory and into the more accommodating environments of Europe and eastern Asia. Looking at the faunal remains you can get a sense of the climate that prevailed at whatever time period you are interested in. The climatic mapping of the Pliocene and Early Pleistocene of the ‘Black Hole’ are, you’ve guessed it understudied. We do know that two and a half million years ago, the forests of Azerbaijan gave way to Savannah and the Arabian peninsula experienced 2 million years of humid conditions, capable of keeping many large (now extinct) rivers topped up.
There you have it. We know alot, but we know so very little about this massive region of the world. We lack fossil hominins in this region and I don’t think Isis would be willing in finding their early ape ancestry any time soon. It would definitely be a useful distraction from Wahhabism. Do something useful for a change, Isis! Get out there and find us those damn fossils! You ignorant misogynistic apes!