Upper Palaeolithic Beads of southern France


The Upper Palaeolithic is marked by the dominance of artefacts, left behind by our ancestors. When compared to more recent times particularly to the advent of farming 10,000 years ago, evidence for how our Upper Palaeolithic ancestors lived and ordered their societies is very much lacking. Recently, questions are beginning to be raised about how we prejudge Upper Palaeolithic hominins.

Claire Heckel of the American Museum of Natural History, in association with the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) wants to harness the power of statistics and the archaeological record to understand the level societal complexity. Many decades ago, archaeologists assumed that early hunter-gatherers were simple people with simple societal structure. The rise of farming in the fertile crescent was argued to be a sharp contrast to what came before, with the sudden need to settle, develop states and thereafter kingdoms. Archaeologist today can’t entirely shed their idea of the contrast between the two moments in time. The question here is: Have we exaggerated the simplicity of Upper Palaeolithic hominins?

In order to begin to answer this question, we first need to find evidence of how Upper Palaeolithic society was structured. Heckel was very interested in what a tiny insignificant object like a bead could tell us about Upper Palaeolithic society. These Basket-shaped beads were found at four archaeological caves and rock shelters in Aquitaine, southern France. The beads are extremely interesting due to the projected time and effort needed to craft them. Some of the beads were made from steatite (soapstone), which is a talc-schist metamorphic rock, which got its name from the soapy feel of the talc in the rock. While others were crafted from mammoth ivory, broken into segments in a five-stage process.

The archaeological record has not always been very clear in shedding light on the past and so many anthropologists have appealed to ethnography to help explain what we see in the archaeological record. Many forget that what happens to the Kalahari Bushmen cannot count as a way of explaining the Upper Palaeolithic hominins of frozen Europe. The first archaeologists to try to use ethnography, was Dr. Lewis Binford who lived with the Nunamuit of Alaska as a way of peeking into life in Late Glacial Europe. This was flawed logic because it does not count as evidence and we need to return to the archaeological record to the direct clues. That is what Claire Heckel is doing here, by using morphometric analysis of 402 basket-shaped beads, the level of standardisation can be quantified.
Taking 6,432 data points on the 402 basket-shaped beads, Heckel used Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) to compare and contrast the shape and form of the beads from 4 cave and rock shelter sites. The results suggested that bead production was a highly standardised process and the statistical analyses were compared to those of Neolithic and Bronze age archaeological sites throughout the world, the level of mastery was comparable to the bead production specialisation during the advent of farming. There has been some debate as to how we should describe craft work in the Upper Palaeolithic.

For example, Jacques Pelegrin argued in 2007, that the word Mastery should be used to describe intensive craft work in the Upper Palaeolithic, while the word specialisation should be used to describe intensive craft work in the Neolithic. This debate continues today but however you phrase it, there is exchange taking place in the region of Aquitaine, southern France. Exposures of Steatite are easily identifiable compared to mammoth ivory, part of a biological organism that roamed the landscape. We can gauge the distance the steatite travelled from the source to the cave or rock shelter sites, an impossible task to overcome when it comes to ivory.

Heckel proposed three different models to explain the archaeological record in Aquitaine. Model 1 suggested that there was a single point in the region, where these beads were produced and distributed from there. Model 3 suggested that the Upper Palaeolithic nomadic groups crafted the beads at the four caves sites. But it was Model 2 that best fitted the above statistical analyses, suggesting that there were multiple territories with their own individual centre of production, while exchange and distribution resulted in the deposition at the cave and rock shelter sites. Heckel’s work is only the beginning of a long research process to see if we have exaggerated the simplicity of Upper Palaeolithic societal structure. Based on the basket-shaped beads found at the early Aurignacian archaeological sites, a small group of people appear to be spending a great deal of time crafting these beautiful objects.

Reprint from Heritage Daily


DNA reveals Aboriginal people had a long and settled connection to country

Historic hair samples collected from Aboriginal people show that following an initial migration 50,000 years ago, populations spread rapidly around the east and west coasts of Australia.

Our research, published in Nature today, also shows that once settled, Aboriginal groups remained in their discrete geographical regions right up until the arrival of Europeans a few hundred years ago.

So where does the evidence for this rapid migration and long settlement come from?

Early expeditions

In a series of remarkable expeditions that ran from the 1920s to 1960s, scientists travelled widely across the Australian outback. They recorded as much anthropological information as possible about Aboriginal Australians.

They recorded film and audio, drawings, songlines, genealogies and extensive physical measurements under tough outback conditions. This included packing in the equipment on camels for the early trips.

Alan Rau, EO Stocker and Herbert Wilkinson on an expedition party departing for a day’s trip from Cockatoo Creek, Central Australia, 1931. South Australian Museum Archives Norman Tindale Collection (AA 338/5/7/8), Author provided

The extensive collections from the Board for Anthropological Expeditions are now curated in the South Australian Museum. They contain the vast majority of the black and white film footage you may have seen of traditional Aboriginal culture, songs, hunting practices and ceremonies.

The metadata collected was voluminous. It now comprises possibly the best anthropological collection of an indigenous people in the world.

Locked in the hair

But perhaps the biggest scientific contributions may yet turn out to be hidden within small locks of hair.

These were collected with permission (such as it was given in the situation and era) for a minor project to study the variation of Aboriginal hair types across Australia.

But the hair clippings turn out to preserve an incredible record of the genetic diversity and distribution of Indigenous Australia prior to European disruption.

Importantly, the detailed genealogical data collected with each sample allows the genetic lineages to be placed on the map back through several generations.

This allowed us to reconstruct the genetic structure within Australia prior to the forced relocation of Aboriginal people to missions and stations, sometimes thousands of kilometres from their traditional lands.

Reconnecting histories

This project was only possible through partnership with Aboriginal families and communities. So we needed to design an ethical framework and protocol for such unprecedented work.

This was based on large amounts of archival research performed by our team members in the Aboriginal Family History Unit of the South Australian Museum, to locate and contact the original donors, or their descendants and family elders.

We arranged a meeting time, and then the combined team spent several days in each Aboriginal community talking to individual families about the project, and passing on copies of the archival material.

We discussed both the potential and pitfalls of genetic research, and answered common questions. These included why the results cannot be used for land claim issues (insufficient geographical resolution) or as a test of Aboriginality (which is a cultural, rather than genetic, association).

The feedback from communities was overwhelmingly positive. There was a strong interest in how a genetic map of Aboriginal Australia could help people of the stolen generation to reconnect with family and country.

It could also help facilitate the repatriation of Aboriginal samples and artefacts held in museums.

The DNA results

The initial genetic results not only reveal exciting insights into the deep genetic history of the continent, but also showcase the enormous potential of our project.

We mapped the maternal genetic lineages onto the birthplace of the oldest recorded maternal ancestor (sometimes two to three generations back) and found there were striking patterns of Australia’s genetic past.

There were many very deep genetic branches, stretching back 45,000 to 50,000 years. We compared these dates to records of the earliest archaeological sites around Australia. We found that the people appear to have arrived in Australia almost exactly 50,000 years ago.

Early migration

Those first Australians entered a landmass we collectively call “Sahul”, where New Guinea was connected to Australia.

The Gulf of Carpentaria was a massive fresh water lake at the time and most likely a very attractive place for the founding population.

The genetic lineages show that the first Aboriginal populations swept around the coasts of Australia in two parallel waves. One went clockwise and the other counter-clockwise, before meeting somewhere in South Australia.

The occupation of the coasts was rapid, perhaps taking no longer than 2,000 to 3,000 years. But after that, the genetic patterns suggest that populations quickly settled down into specific territory or country, and have moved very little since.

The genetic lineages within each region are clearly very divergent. They tell us that people – once settled in a particular landscape – stayed connected within their realms for up to 50,000 years despite huge environmental and climate changes.

We should remember that this is about ten times as long as all of the European history we’re commonly taught.

This pattern is very unusual elsewhere in the world, and underlines why there might be such remarkable Aboriginal cultural and spiritual connection to land and country.

As Kaurna Elder, Lewis O’Brien, one of the original hair donors and part of the advisory group for the study, put it:

Aboriginal people have always known that we have been on our land since the start of our time, but it is important to have science show that to the rest of the world.

Reprint from The Conversation

Benefits of Palaeoanthropology

Human evolution is a way to find who we really are. A way to humility. A process of clear critical thinking, relying on evidence, that brings us closer to our ancestors. Discovers how they looked, how they moved, what they ate, the predators they encountered, the herbivores they hunted and the ecosystems they inhabited. It gives us an appreciation of the plight of the planets most endangered biological organisms, trying to etch out a living in fragile ecosystems that are being destroyed by humanities greed. We can never empathise with these creatures unless we learn the lessons of passed mass extinctions. 6 million years of hominin evolution is complicated. There is much that has yet to be discovered, but that is what makes the science of palaeoanthropology exciting.

Una sorpresa (garhi) en Afar

Nutcracker Man

Nos situamos en los años 90 en el famoso valle del Middle Awash en la región de Afar (Etiopía), donde colaboran investigadores etíopes y estadounidenses liderados por Tim White y Berhane Asfaw. Allí encuentran a lo largo de una década en los lechos del sitio de Hata, en Bouri, una quincena de fósiles que sirvieron para proponer una nueva especie, Australopithecus garhi(Asfaw et al, 1999): fragmentos craneales y dientes bien conservados, y también algunos restos poscraneales aunque estos con difícil asignación a garhi (fémur, cúbito, peroné, húmero, radio, falange proximal del pie). Todos los restos están bien datados en 2,5 Ma gracias al sedimento volcánico.

Garhi significa “sorpresa” en la lengua Afar. ¿Por qué este nombre?

Los restos craneales (y sobre todo el espécimen tipo Bou-VP-12/130) son particularmente interesantes, porque tienen algunas similitudes con los Australopithecus africanus del sur de África (aunque les distancian 6600 km), tales como:

  • Constricción post-orbital…

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New evidence on the diet of the Homo antecessor from Atapuerca

A team led by experts of the University of Barcelona, the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES) and the University of Alicante, analyzes for the first time the diet of the Homo antecessor with the study of the microscopic traces left by abrasive particles of food on dental enamel surfaces 

According to the new study, published in the scientific journal Scientific Reports, the Homo antecessor processed and consumed food differently from Lower Pleistocene hominines

The dietary pattern of the Homo antecessor could be related to an environment with significant fluctuations in climate and food availability

The Homo antecessor, a hominin species that inhabited the Iberian Peninsula around 800,000 years ago, would have a mechanically more demanding diet than other hominin species in Europe and the African continent. This unique pattern, which would be characterized by the consumption of hard and abrasive foods, may be explained by the differences in food processing in a very demanding environment with fluctuations in climate and food resources, according to a study published in the journal Scientific Reports and led by a team from the University of Alicante, the Faculty of Biology of the University of Barcelona and the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES).

This new research, which reveals for the first time the evidence on the diet of these hominines with the study of the microscopic traces left by food in the dental enamel, counts with the participation of the researchers Alejandro Pérez-Pérez and his team, formed by the doctors Laura Martínez, Ferrán Estebaranz, and Beatriz Pinilla (UB), Marina Lozano (Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution, IPHES), Alejandro Romero (University of Alicante), Jordi Galbany (George Washington University, United States) and the co-directors of Atapuerca, José María Bermúdez de Castro (National Research Centre on Human Evolution, CENIEH), Eudald Carbonell (IPHES) and Juan Luís Arsuaga (Universidad Complutense de Madrid).

Before /Prior to this research, the diet of the hominines of the Lower Pleistocene of Atapuerca (Burgos, Spain), our most remote European ancestors, had been inferred from animal remains –a great variety of large mammals and even turtles– found in the same levels in which the human remains were found. Evidence of cannibalism has also been suggested in some of these fossils.

Foods that leave a mark on the enamel

The study is based on the analysis of the buccal microwear pattern of the fossils from Trinchera  Elefante and Gran Dolina in the Atapuerca site. The examined microwear features are small marks on the buccal teeth enamel surface , whose density and length depend on the types of chewed food. “The usefulness of this methodology has been proved by the study of the microwear patterns of present populations, both hunter-gatherer and agricultural, showing that different feeding patterns correlate with specific microwear patterns in the vestibular surface of the dental crown”, explains Professor Alejandro Pérez-Pérez, professor at the Zoology and Biological Anthropology Unit of theof the Department of Evolutionary Biology, Ecology and Environmental Sciences at the University of Barcelona.

In the new study, the Atapuerca fossils have been compared with samples from other Lower Pleistocene populations: with fossils of the African Homo ergaster, ancestors of all Europeans dated from 1.8 million years ago; and also with Homo heidelbergensis, which appeared more than 500,000 years ago in Europe and lasted until at least 200,000 years ago, and finally with Homo neanderthalensis, specimens from the Iberian Peninsula that lived between 200,000 and 40,000 years ago.

Atapuerca4Higher striation densities in Homo antecessor

The results of the study show that the teeth of H. antecessor show higher striation densities than the rest of the analyzed species. “Our findings do not allow us to say exactly what foods they ate, since the abrasive materials that cause the marks on the teeth may have different origins, but they do allow us to point out that H. antecessor would have had a diet largely based on hard and abrasive foods, such as plants containing phytoliths (which are silica particles produced by plants that are as hard as enamel), tubers with traces of soil particles, collagen or connective tissue and bone or raw meat”, says the researcher.

The researchers suggest that differences in the Gran Dolina microwear patterns among the compared samples could reflect cultural differences in the way food was processed. “Hunting and gathering activities are consistent with the highly-abrasive wear pattern we have encountered, but it is very difficult to think that the available food in the Atapuerca area was very different from that available to other hunter-gatherer hominins. Therefore, it would be the different ways of processing the food that would give rise to these differences in the dental microwear patterns. That is to say, they obtained, processed and consumed the food in different ways”, explains Alejandro Pérez-Pérez, who leads a team that has also applied this methodology in the study of feeding behaviors of the hominins of the Pleistocene of East Africa, including the species Paranthropus boiseiand Homo habilis.

Atapuerca1A more primitive lithic industry

This pattern of great abrasiveness, observed on the enamel teeth surfaces in Gran Dolina contrasts with what has been observed in the compared species in the study. “UnlikeH. neanderthalensis, which had a more advanced lithic industry (called Mode 3 or Mousterian), the tools that have been found related to Homo antecessor are primitive (Mode 1). These industries would not facilitate food processing, as also suggested by evidence that they used teeth to chew bones. In addition, the lack of evidence of the use of fire in Atapuerca suggests that they would surely eat everything raw, causing more dental wear, including plant foods, meat, tendons or skin.

Atapuerca2For the researchers, a diet with a high meat consumption could have evolutionary implications. “Meat in the diet could have contributed to the necessary energy gain to sustain a large brain like that of H. antecessor, with a brain volume of approximately 1,000 cubic centimeters, compared to the 764 of H. ergaster, but it would also represent a significant source of food in a highly demanding environment where preferred foods, such as ripe fruits and tender vegetables, would vary seasonally”.

The research contributes significantly to the better understanding of the dietary adaptations of our ancestors and highlights the importance of the ecological and cultural factors that have conditioned our biological evolution.

Paper reference:

A. Pérez-Pérez, M. Lozano, A. Romero, L. M. Martínez, J. Galbany, B. Pinilla, F. Estebaranz-Sánchez, J. M.  Bermúdez de Castro, E. Carbonell y J. L. Arsuaga. «The diet of the first Europeans from Atapuerca». Scientific Reports, February, 2017.


IN THE MICROSCOPE, Aliejandro Romero, the researcher of the University of Alicante qu eha participated in the project

Reprint from University of Alicante

Homo neanderthalensis – A misunderstood species


The evolution in our understanding of the lifestyle of Homo neanderthalensis is one case in point. In the late 19th century, the impression of this hominin was indelibly cemented into the minds of scientists and the general public by the interpretation of the La Chapelle aux Saints skeleton.

Found in 1908, the old man of La Chapelle was found with extensive osteoarthritis and an edentulous jaw. These pathologies were interpreted as key characteristics of the hominin species Homo neanderthalensis and so in 1911, Marcellin Boule sketched a reconstruction of the hominin that would prove hard to ignore or forget. It was until the end of the 20th century that scientists re-assessed their impression of this hominin.

The process of humanising this species came with a re-examination of the La Chapelle material and new hominin discoveries throughout the 20th century. The dawn of archaeogenetic research finally showed that we shared a common ancestor with Homo neanderthalensis in the Middle Pleistocene.

Today we now know that at least in the Levant, Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens interbred, which has raised further questions about how prevalent this interbreeding phases were. Many palaeoanthropologists no longer use “Homo neanderthalensis” in their academic papers, partially due to the ridiculous length of the name, but also because the hominin exhibits insignificant differences to us. Today you will only see “Neandertal” for the most part.

The scientific community has finally developed a new-found respect for our human cousin, but there is a lot we simply do not know about Homo neanderthalensis. A lot of the individual skeletons that represent the species have some degree of trauma. We know this hominin lived in challenging conditions, but if we were to glimpse the entirety of the Homo neanderthalensis fossil record, would what we see now be representative of the entire species?

Simon Underdown of Oxford Brookes University thinks not. In December of 2016, the Society for the study of Human Biology conference was hosted at the University of Aarhus, Denmark and Simon had an opportunity to lay out his thoughts on the subject.

Reprint from Heritage Daily

Skulls reveals that ancient Americans didn’t mix with neighbours

It’s a real head-scratcher. The shapes of human skulls from a narrow strip in Mexico reveal that first arrivals to the Americas may have kept to themselves, even when there were no geographical barriers that would have prevented them mixing.

Genetic studies have begun to unravel the complex story of the earliest American settlers, but archaeological studies can provide important details too – particularly the careful study of human skull shape. This is influenced by someone’s genetic history: when two populations become isolated from each other and can no longer interbreed, they each begin to develop unique genetic signatures – and skull shapes.

Mark Hubbe and Brianne Herrera at the Ohio State University in Columbus and their colleagues took detailed measurements from a series of 800 to 500-year-old skulls unearthed in three regions of Mexico. They then looked at equivalent measurements from skulls found at a number of sites across North and South America, East Asia and Australasia and analysed how skull shape varied with location.

Skulls from two of the Mexican regions – Sonora and Tlanepantla – clustered together in the shape analysis. But skulls from the third region, Michoacán, were different. The variation was on a scale normally seen between two populations that have been separated for millennia, often because they have settled in regions that are thousands of kilometres apart. Yet the distance between Michoacán and Tlanepantla is under 300 kilometres.

It’s an astonishing discovery, says Hubbe. Mexico was first inhabited at least 10,000 years ago, and the founding populations may well have had different genetic histories before they settled in the area. Crucially, the populations seem to have been so reluctant to interbreed that those genetic differences were still apparent just 500 years ago. “For whatever reason, these differences have been maintained for thousands of years,” says Hubbe.

Mexico lacks obvious geographical features that could have kept people apart – but formidable cultural and language barriers might have existed, says Hubbe.

“When it comes to population history, a whole host of scenarios are possible,” says Noreen von Cramon-Taubadel of the University at Buffalo, New York. “We see instances even in modern populations where neighbouring groups live in close geographic contact yet do not mix extensively in terms of marriage.”

Skull and other remains at Brazilian burial site

Hubbe and von Cramon-Taubadel collaborated on a second study, which involved analysing another set of early American skulls (pictured top and above). These came from Lagoa Santa in eastern Brazil and date back 10,000 to 7000 years, not long after South America was first inhabited.

“The Lagoa Santa material is unique in the entire New World,” says André Strauss at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who was also involved in the work. “It presents abundant, well-preserved, old skeletons with reliable associated archaeological context.”

The researchers discovered that these earliest South Americans – the “Palaeoamericans” – had skull shapes that are distinctly different from those of most indigenous South American populations alive today.

“The differences between the Palaeoamericans and today’s South Americans are so large that they cannot simply have appeared in 10,000 years,” says Hubbe.

In other words, the Palaeoamericans cannot simply have evolved into today’s indigenous South Americans. Instead, the researchers estimate that the two populations split apart from a shared ancestral population at least 20,000 years ago, offering a much larger time window for the two groups to develop distinct skull features.

Because the consensus is that the Americas were not inhabited 20,000 years ago, this conclusion implies that South America may have been colonised in at least two distinct waves – one represented by the ancient people at Lagoa Santa and another by today’s indigenous South American populations.

This goes against the general assumption that South America was initially colonised in just one wave, before the Europeans arrived. It isn’t the first evidence that the South American story is more complicated, though – a 2015 study also raised the possibility of multiple colonisation waves by uncovering a genetic link between some of today’s Amazonian populations and indigenous groups in Australia.

“It is great to see this new analysis of morphological data,” says Pontus Skoglund at Harvard Medical School, an author on the 2015 study. “It reiterates that there is something interesting about the peopling of the Americas that we don’t quite understand yet.”

Journal reference: American Journal of Physical Anthropology, DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.23186

Journal reference: Science Advances, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1602289

Article Reprint from New Scientist