Lessons of Homo naledi

New discoveries of fossilised hominin remains have to varying degrees helped to shape our ever-morphing interpretation of hominin evolution. Homo naledi is a case in point.

Though many worker in the field of palaeoanthropology were disappointed with the confirmed Middle Pleistocene age of the Dinaledi remains, this news nevertheless fills a void in our understanding of Middle Pleistocene evolution.

H. naledi confirms what we have known since the astonishing discovery of Homo floresiensis, namely that small brained hominins continued to thrive in some part of the planet right up to recent times. H. naledi can now join Homo floresiensis in the small brain Middle to Late Pleistocene club.

Palaeoanthropologist can now exercise a high level of skepticism on dating hominin fossilised remains using morphological stucture and statistics. In 2015, palaeoanthropologist John Francis Thackeray concluded Homo naledi to be over 1.5 Ma, while Mana Dembo and her colleagues concluded an age of 930,000 years of age for the Rising Star remains. Though Dembo et al were closer to actual age of the remains, they were still nearly 600,000 years off.

Finally, H. naledi continues to confirm what we have known since the announcement of Australopithecus sediba that hominin evolution features an ever changing mosasicism. With Australopithecine-like shoulders and cranium, while the lower limbs and foot appears more derived.

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


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.

Cancer: The Earliest Carcinoma Yet Discovered

 Pretty isn’t it………… you are looking at the rise of metastatic carcinoma in human body cells. A form of cancer with the ability to infect other organs in a biological organism. While Leprosy is the oldest documented disease in the world, thus far, dating to 4000 B.C. India. Ignoring the debate regarding the true age of knowledge in the Edwin Smith Papyrus (While it dates to 1600 B.C, the knowledge it contains may be as much as 1400 years older), evidence for Cancer may date back to northern Sudan 3,200 years ago.


 Skeleton 244-8 was recovered from tomb G244 in the Amara West C cemetery in 2013. This 25 to 35 year old man was found with a considerable coverage of pin-sized perforations from shoulder to proximal femor. The bone tissue was therefore attacked by something. Historically Metastatic organ cancers are the most likely candidate as they prefer bone tissue. Tumor cells spread through haematopoietic-rich bone marrow creating holes as a result of bone reabsorption in a process known as osteolysis.


 This research is helping us better understand the evolution of cancer and is a useful glance-back to remind us that animals and plants are not the only organisms that evolve, disease causing bacteria have evolved with us (animals, plants etc.) for hundreds of millions of years.

What about insects in hominin diets?

For those fans of human evolutionary research news, you will be well aware of the lack of research into the role insects played in the diet of hominins over the past 6 or so million years.


An Ant! – Credit: Wiki Commons

This topic was addressed back in 2001 in the chapter of an academic volume by William McGrew of the department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge. Since then nothing has been done to address ways in which such an investigation could be conducted. What can be done to address this? Look at what we………..modern primate diets and the role insects play in their diets from the human to the Orang-utan. Let’s then look at the earliest evidence for hominin consumption of insects. South Africa has nabbed that prize, thus far. The Lower Palaeolithic sites of Swartkrans, Sterkfontein and Drimolen contained hominin fossil bone tools with wear patterns similar to those wear patterns you find on sticks used by Chimps to fish for termites. Fossil remains of Paranthropus robustus were found at these sites and the evidence suggests they were feasting on termites.


Paranthropus boisei (Extinct cousin of Paranthropus robustus) – Credit: Wiki Commons

Examining the fossil evidence is one focus, but there are others including, lithics, residues, dental microwear, stable isotopes, DNA and coprolites (Fossilised shit…..basically). The dental microwear is quite problematic, because you have to take note that the tooth has been in the earth for millions of years (2.4 million years for the earliest Paranthropus specimen). Stable isotopic research is the much more promising of the topics discussed in William McGrew’s latest paper for the Journal of Human Evolution.


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