Everybody has heard of the Elgin Marbles and the debate surrounding the right’s of countries to those artefacts. These marbles are famous the world over but this story is repeated many more times not just in archaeology, but palaeoanthropology also. Zambia was once a colony of the British Empire and it was during that time that a certain hominin skull E 686 was uncovered. This skull is now lies in the vaults of the South Kensington Museum, London. In Zambia, Deputy Minister Susan Kawandami (pictured) recently reported before the Zambian Parliament that years of talks failed to secure the return of E 686 to Zambia with the Natural History Museum, London prepared to make copies of the skull instead. Kawandami will now establish new discussions through UNESCO, while Minister of Chiefs and Traditional Affairs, Nkandu Luo will visit London to establish a dialogue with the Trustees of the Museum.
If the Natural History Museum is ever to return the fossil, one thing is for sure, Zambia will have to convince the London Museum, that it is proactive in heritage (particularly palaeoanthropological) promotion and will ensure great care for the priceless skull. Which is currently not the case. The famed locality has no interpretative centre, no sign, no indication that two pivotal hominin bones – E 686 (Skull) and E 691 (tibia), were uncovered there. On the 17th of June 1921, A. S. Armstrong and A. W. Whittington uncovered those remains at Mutwe wa Nsofu, Mulungushi Road, Kabwe, Zambia. That same year, the fossils were given a new human species name – Homo rhodesiensis. This species has, thus far, only ever been found in Africa and it is a species that is seldom used by palaeoanthropologists. Most consider it a variation of Homo heidelbergensis. A key species that diverged into Homo sapiens (in Africa)and Homo neanderthalensis (in Europe). From about 1.5 million to 500,000 years ago, is a time that palaeoanthropologists have difficulty understanding due to the particularly patchy fossil record. So, what I have described is quite simplistic and many would argue over the exact details. The two fossils represent two adults males, that lived around 1 million years ago. Sadly, given they were found in the 1920’s, excavations in the field of human evolution were in their infancy and so, grossly inaccurate. The only way to date the site was through biostratigraphy. By looking at the animals that were found in the layers in which the fossils were found, later palaeoanthropologists compared those assemblages to strata at other sites which were radiometrically dated. The Kabwe stratigraphy was quite similar to Bed IV at the Oldupai Gorge which was dated to between 780,000 years to 1.3 million years.
Zambia’s National Heritage and Conservation Commission (NHCC) is now in the process of rehabilitating the site. Chief executive officer of the commission, Collins Chipote warned that though the site was intact, it needs to be secured and developed. A Kabwe Mining museum was commissioned by Minster Nkandu Luo (pictured), which will be run by the Lead-Zinc Mining company Enviro-Processing Ltd. a subsidary of the giant Berkeley Mineral Resources PLC. More effort is required on the part of Zambia to show that they have the determination to celebrate their priceless heritage and right now, there seems to be no action, but plenty of talking.
Efforts to return the cranium have remained futile. Minister for Tourism Charles Banda visited London’s Natural History Museum to engage in talks over the issue. Learn more here.
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!
This evening on the 11th of January 1964, fossil hunter Kamoya Kimeu (1940-Present) was crossing what had been an Early Pleistocene delta to the western side of Lake Natron, Arusha, Tanzania. He was there with a team led by Richard Leakey in search of our earliest ancestors. Barely a few days into the expedition, Kimeu found a hominin mandible, not one of our ancestors, but just an intriguing. It is 1964 and by this time, OH 5, representative of Paranthropus boisei was already gracing the covers of magazines throughout the world. Thought to be the first human that used stone tools for the first time, the Nutcracker Man was not all he was cracked up to be. As more hominin fossils from the Late Pliocene and early Pleistocene began to show, it became more and more clear, that while P. boisei may have been found on an archaeological layer, this is not enough evidence to support a “he’s the first human” hypothesis.
Ol Doinyo Lengai: A View from Lake Natron
Kimeu had found another representative of P. boisei at Peninj and it was a remarkably complete hominin mandible. The right condyle was missing and so too were the left and right coronoid processes, despite that the fossil had its complete set of teeth and that was particularly key. The teeth showed a great deal of wear to the point that you could see the dentine beneath the enamel. This individual must have eaten alot of sedges and grasses throughout its life to give that sort of result. Grasses and sedges that you could find around deltas like that one that would have entered Lake Natron, when it wasn’t quite as salty. But when exactly did our hominin friend give up its spirit along the shores of the Lake. The stratigraphic layers in the region are like the pages of a picture book, no words, but pictures that can tell better narratives that Twilight could ever even dream of. The mandible was uncovered in a sedimentary layers, comprising the deltas alluvial deposits, sandwiched between two volcanic layers. The volcanic Tuff atop the layer that contained the fossil was previously dated to between 1.6 and 1.4 million years of age, while the basalt below was dated to 1.7 million years of age. You may think that the fossil is probably going to be between 1.7 and 1.4 million years of age, but the team of geologists at the site conducted further analysis at the site to help get a more accurate result. They settled on an age for the mandible of between 1.5 and 1.3 million years of age. Enough time for the ph of a lake to reach beyond 12.
View of Lake Natron and a superimposed graphic of the hypothetical organisation of the layers around the fossil.
Since the discovery of the Peninj 1 mandible in 1964, another hominin with similar characteristics to P. boisei was found. Paranthropus aethiopicus now joined a trio of hominin species that became the Paranthropines, comprising boisei, robustus (South African hominin) and aethiopicus. Most of what we have collected of these creatures are crania and mandibles, though some postcranial remains have been found. Thankfully the teeth survive well and can tell us a great deal about their diet and the subtle, yet important questions of how they chew their greenery. There was a long drawn out debate over whether these three hominins deserved to live in a separate group – the Paranthropines. Originally, these hominins were classified as robust australopithecines and the palaeoanthropological community decided that a change was needed. The complete anatomy of the Peninj Hominin was never recovered and given that the mandible survived so well, this individual may have fallen to a carnivore in the delta. Below is a summary of the discovery that was made on the 11th of January 1964.
Deinotherium. The Terrible Beast. A Proboscidean. The video below was one of my first introductions to the world of palaeoanthropology and 3D reconstructions of prehistoric life. It inspired me to learn more about the remote prehistory. This creature, a relative of the famed African Elephant, would have been between 4.5 to 5 metres in height at the shoulder, with a set of short downward-facing tusks and would have had a similar behavioural characteristics to modern day elephants. Nobody knows how long the trunk was, though the muscle attachments regions on the front of the skull can give some clues, its length remains conjectural. The set of downward-facing tusks have been the subject of much debate, ranging from sexual display to digging for roots and tubers to tree bark scraping. Again explanations vary. The Deinotheres has, thus far, been broken up into three species – D. giganteum, D. bozasi and D. indicum. The earliest examples of this group have been dated to about 23 million years ago (Early Miocene), while their extinction took place some time in the Middle Pleistocene, about 700,000 years ago. This was probably caused by the knock-on effects of climate change on the habitats in which they lived. The Deinotheres have a history that extends back into the Oligocene Epoch and this will be the subject of this discussion. As a side note, it is really sad that documentaries on human evolution and prehistoric beasts, do not explain the following. This is documentary material, in my opinion.
As Gondwana began to rupture apart 184 million years ago in the Early Jurassic. Africa was the first isolated baby continent of Gonwana. It remained as such, quite literally up until about 25 million years ago, 159 million years of isolaton for evolution to work its magic on a limited diversity of placental mammals that called Africa, home. But given that elephant-like creatures existed in Late Oligocene (34 – 28 Million Year ago) Pakistan, land bridges must have developed between Africa and Arabia / Eurasia as the continent made the relentless push north. With such unimaginable tectonic forces at work, it is inevitable that volcanism increases in activity. The tectonic dynamics were such in eastern Africa million of years ago that a unique type of volcanic eruption occurred. Everybody is familiar with the power of water, in the form of slow development floods and the devastating flash-flood. Lava is equally capable of flooding the landscape, not as we all know it today, but on a scale that we cannot comprehend. Everybody is familiar with the Cretaceous – Paleogene Extinction Event, but few are aware of the most devastating mass extinction event in the prehistory of the planet – The Permian – Triassic Extinction Event. It was brought on by a truly massive flood basalt eruption. This is what quite literally created Siberia, that’s right Siberia. Today, 252 million years on, the remains of that basalt eruption covers an area of over 2 million sq km² and may, back then, have covered over 7 million sq km². Eleven flood basalt eruption events have taken place within the last 250 million years. The Eritrean Intertrappean Beds is a much smaller events and featured episodes of volcanic activity followed by laying down of fluvial sediment, hence the “Inter-Trappean”. These beds can be up to 100 metres in depth and cover many square kilometres. This intermittent event has been dated from 29 to 23.6 million years of age.
Mendefera, is the town capital of the Debub Region of Eritrea and it sits atop the Eritrean Intertrappean Beds. It was at a number of outcrops of fluvial mudstones and siltstones that fossils of the early ancestors of Deinotherium were uncovered recently, called Prodeinotherium. Numerous other sites have revealed early Proboscideans such as Gomphotherium, which is likely to be the earliest representative of this intriguing family. During the Oligocene, Arabia and north-eastern Africa flirted with the Tethys Ocean promiscuously. So the sight you might have seen from the Eritean highlands, back then was swamp, river and lake populated landscapes, perfect for tropical wet forests, especially when the basaltic volcanism of the area was on hiatus. As Africa edged closer to Arabia and Eurasia, the lack of diverse fauna, may have allowed a large influx of Eurasian fauna to call Africa, home for the first time. There are an estimated six Trans-Tethyan Paleogene mammalian dispersals all of which were limited by the availability of land bridges. So large herbivores could not cross into or out of Africa without substantial land bridge crossing points. By the beginning of the Miocene, there was a massive faunal turnover in the form of African endemic species dying out and the movement of Eurasia fauna south into the continent. This dynamic change in faunal movements also included the northward movement of Prodeinotherium into Eurasia, evolving into the Deinotherium we all know and love.