Author Archives: Steve Drury

Early modern humans in Sumatra before the Toba eruption

In late July 2017 news emerged that modern humans first reached Australia at least 65 thousand years ago. Confirming that the date of departure from Africa to end up in SE Asia and Australasia was  considerable earlier than previously believed, deposits in Sumatra that contain remains of early Home sapiens have yielded even older ages (Westaway, K.E. and 22 others 2017. An early modern human presence in Sumatra 73,000–63,000 years ago. Nature v. 548 online; doi:10.1038/nature23452). This resulted from a re-examination of material from the Padang Caves first excavated more than a century ago by Eugène Dubois, famous for his discovery in Java of the first H. erectus remains. A richly fossiliferous breccia in the Lida Ajer cave yielded a fauna characteristic of a rainforest biome and included two teeth that Dubois considered to be human. Several later palaeontologists confirmed his identification as have hominin specialists in the present Australian-Indonesian-American-British-Dutch-German team. The fossil assemblage has long suggested great antiquity for the site, but only now has it been dated precisely. The dating employed three methods: optically stimulated luminescence dating of quartz grains from the breccia (85±25 to 62±5  ka); uranium-series dating of speleothem including fragments of hollow ‘soda-straw’ stalactites(84±1 to 71±7 ka); uranium-series dating of gibbon and orangutan teeth found together with the human teeth (86±13 to 76±7 ka). Statistical analysis of the age data suggests 73 to 63 ka for the fauna, with a maximum age for deposition of the breccia of 84±1 ka.

Satellite image of Lake Toba, the site of a VE...

Satellite image of Lake Toba in NW Sumatra (at centre), the site of the largest volcanic eruption during the history of human evolution ~71,600 years ago (credit: Wikipedia)

Stone tools which may have been carried by anatomically modern humans into the area have previously been used to suggest a minimum date of the arrival of migrants, though they may have been carried by ­H. erectus. Remarkably, such tools have been found beneath a thick bed of volcanic ash found throughout southern Asia and in Indian Ocean sediment cores. This has been dated at 71.6 ka and represents the explosive collapse of the caldera now containing Lake Toba in NW Sumatra that was the largest volcanic event in the entire history of the genus Homo. The new age data from Lida Ajer suggests that modern humans were present in its vicinty before the eruption, a view also supported by ‘molecular-clock’ dating of the range of mitochondrial DNA carried by living SE Asian people (79 to 75 ka). So, despite the stupendous magnitude of the Toba eruption is seems likely that some of the migrants survived.  Together with the dating of the earliest Australians the Sumatran evidence is at odds with the view, widely held by palaeoanthropologists, that the ‘Out of Africa’ exodus began by crossing the Straits of Bab el Mandab between 74 and 58 ka when global sea-level fell markedly during marine oxygen-isotope Stage 4 (MIS4). A problem with that hypothesis has been that climatic and ecological conditions in southern Asia during MIS4 were unfavourable. But is seems that modern humans were already there and capable of adapting to both the climate shift and to the devastation undoubtedly caused by Toba.

The late-Ordovician mass extinction: volcanic connections

The dominant feature of Phanerozoic stratigraphy is surely the way that many of the formally named major time boundaries in the Stratigraphic Column coincide with sudden shifts in the abundance and diversity of fossil organisms. That is hardly surprising since all the globally recognised boundaries between Eras, Periods and lesser divisions in relative time were, and remain, based on palaeontology. Two boundaries between Eras – the Palaeozoic-Mesozoic (Permian-Triassic) at 252 Ma and Mesozoic-Cenozoic (Cretaceous-Palaeogene) at 66 Ma – and a boundary between Periods – Triassic-Jurassic at 201 Ma – coincide with enormous declines in biological diversity. They are defined by mass extinctions involving the loss of up to 95 % of all species living immediately before the events. Two other extinction events that match up to such awesome statistics do not define commensurately important stratigraphic boundaries. The Frasnian Stage of the late-Devonian closed at 372 Ma with a prolonged series of extinctions (~20 Ma) that eliminated  at least 70% of all species that were alive before it happened. The last 10 Ma of the Ordovician period witnessed two extinction events that snuffed out about the same number of species. The Cambrian Period is marked by 3 separate events that in percentage terms look even more extreme than those at the end of the Ordovician, but there are a great many less genera known from Cambrian times than formed fossils during the Ordovician.

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Faunal extinctions during the Phanerozoic in relation to the Stratigraphic Column.

Empirical coincidences between the precise timing of several mass extinctions with that of large igneous events – mainly flood basalts – suggest a repeated volcanic connection with deterioration of conditions for life. That is the case for four of the Famous Five, the end-Ordovician die-off having been ascribed to other causes; global cooling that resulted in south-polar glaciation of the Gondwana supercontinent and/or an extra-solar gamma-ray burst (predicated on the preferential extinction of Ordovician near-surface, planktonic fauna such as some trilobite families). Neither explanation is entirely satisfactory, but new evidence has emerged that may support a volcanic trigger (Jones, D.S. et al. 2017. A volcanic trigger for the Late Ordovician mass extinction? Mercury data from south China and Laurentia. Geology, v. 45, p. 631-634; doi:10.1130/G38940.1). David Jones and his US-Japan colleagues base their hypothesis on several very strong mercury concentrations in thin sequences in the western US and southern China of late Ordovician marine sediments that precede, but do not exactly coincide with, extinction pulses. They ascribe these to large igneous events that had global effects, on the basis of similar Hg anomalies associated with extinction-related LIPs. Yet no such volcanic provinces have been recorded from that time-range of the Ordovician, although rift-related volcanism of roughly that age has been reported from Korea. That does not rule out the possibility as LIPs, such as the Ontong Java Plateau, are known from parts of the modern ocean floor that formed in the Mesozoic and Cenozoic. Ordovician ocean floor was subducted long ago.

The earlier Hg pulses coincide with evidence for late Ordovician glaciations over what is now Africa and eastern South America. The authors suggest that massive volcanism may then have increased the Earth’s albedo by blasting sulfates into the stratosphere. A similar effect may have resulted from chemical weathering of widely exposed flood basalts which draws down atmospheric CO2. The later pulses coincide with the end of Gondwanan glaciation, which may signify massive emanation of volcanic CO2 into the atmosphere and global warming. Despite being somewhat speculative, in the absence of evidence, a common link between the Big Five plus several other major extinctions and LIP volcanism would quieten their popular association with major asteroid and/or comet impacts currently being reinvigorated by drilling results from the K-Pg Chicxulub crater offshore of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

New dates for earliest human occupation of Australia

When modern humans first reached Australia has an importance beyond the starting date for the island continent’s archaeology and confirmation that their ancestors are the oldest known migrants from Africa. The first native Australians carried within their genome important information about the minimum date at which some non-Africans interbred with more archaic Neanderthal and Denisovan humans, traces of whose DNA are are present in that of living Australian aborigines. Most dating of when modern humans first reached different parts of the non-African world has relied on the radiocarbon method, which is suspect from beyond 40 to 45 ka as 14C produced earlier has decayed to levels that are now below the practical limit of detection and measurement. It is therefore no accident that the bulk of ‘first-arrival’ dates for Eurasia and Australasia are around 45 ka. In fact, any accurate age, however old, for the earliest skeletal remains only indicates the minimum date of arrival until other remains are discovered.

Reliable dating of earlier events in the Pleistocene relies on other methods, the most important for settings other than speleothem from caves being optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) applied to soil minerals that estimates their time of burial. Briefly, molecules of soil grains made of a mineral such as quartz are ‘charged-up’ with energy by radiation emitted by unstable isotopes in the soil. Exposure to light releases that stored energy in the form of luminescence. Measuring the amount of luminescence emitted by optically stimulated grains therefore gives a measure of the time since they were buried and ceased to be exposed to sunlight.

Madjedbebe rock shelter

The Madjedbebe rock shelter in Arnhem Land, Northern Territories, Australia. (Credit: Chris Clarkson, University of Queensland)

A re-evaluation of the Madjedbebe site in the Northern Territory, widely accepted as having yielded Australia’s oldest artefacts in 1989, takes back human occupation more than 20 thousand years before previous estimates (Clarkson and 27 others 2017. Human occupation of northern Australia by 65, 000 years ago. Nature, v.  547, p. 306-310; doi:10.1038/nature22968). The soil profile in the Madjedbebe rock shelter turns out to be littered with artefacts – including hearths, tools and blocks of ochre and reflective mica pigments, plus remnants of plant foods – to a depth of ~2.5 m, with three particularly dense accumulations. Carbon-rich remains are also present throughout the profile which provided a means of accurate calibration and confirmation of OSL dates back as far as the radiocarbon method allows, giving confidence in the older OSL dates that extend to 65.0±5.7 ka in the earliest zone of dense artefact finds. Because the modern DNA of Australia’s first native people shows no sign of mixture with other modern humans, this places the timing of modern human interbreeding with archaic people before this time. The age also predates the range when the continent’s megafauna began to decline to eventual extinction, which supports the view that it was anthropogenic.

See also: Marean, C.W. 2017. Early signs of human presence in Australia. Nature, v.  547, p. 285-287; doi:10.1038/547285a.

Gas hydrates: a warning from the past

Detailed acoustic imaging above the Troll gas field in the northern North Sea off western Norway has revealed  tens of thousands of elliptical pits on the seabed. At around 10 to 20 per square kilometre over an area of about 15,000 km2 there are probably between 150 to 300 thousand of them. They range between 10 to 100 m across and are about 6 m deep on average, although some are as deep as 20 m. They are pretty much randomly distributed but show alignment roughly parallel to regional N-S sea-floor currents. Many of the world’s continental shelves display such pockmark fields, but the Troll example is among the most extensive. Almost certainly the pockmarks formed by seepage of gas or water to the surface. However, detailed observations suggest they are inactive structures with no sign of bubbles or fluid seepage. Yet the pits cut though glacial diamictites deposited by the most recent Norwegian Channel Ice Stream through which icebergs once ploughed and which is overlain by thin Holocene marine sediments. One possibility is that they record gas loss from the Troll field, another being destabilisation of shallow gas hydrate deposits.

Troll pockmarks

Parts of the Troll pockmark field off Norway. A: density of pockmarks in an area of 169 square km. B: details of a cluster of pockmarks. (Credit: Adriano Mazzini, Centre for Earth Evolution and Dynamics (CEED) University of Oslo)

Norwegian geoscientists have studied part of the field in considerable detail, analysing carbonate-rich blocks and foraminifera in the pits (Mazzini, A. and 8 others 2017. A climatic trigger for the giant Troll pockmark field in the northern North Sea. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, v. 464, p. 24-34; http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.epsl.2017.02.014). The carbonates show very negative δ13C values that suggest the carbon in them came from methane, which could indicate either of the two possible means of formation. However, U-Th dating of the carbonates and radiocarbon ages of forams in the marine sediment infill suggest that they formed at around 10 ka ago; 1500 years after the end of the Younger Dryas cold episode and the beginning of the Holocene interglacial. Most likely they represent destabilisation of a once-extensive, shallow layer of methane hydrates in the underlying sediments, conditions during the Younger Dryas having been well within the stability field of gas hydrates. Sporadic leaks from the deeper Troll gas field hosted by Jurassic sandstones is unlikely to have created such a uniform distribution of gas-release pockmarks. Adriano Mazzini and colleagues conclude that rapid early Holocene warming led to sea-floor temperatures and pressures outside the stability field of gas hydrates. There are few signs that hydrates linger in the area, explaining the present inactivity of the pockmarks – all the methane and CO2 escaped before 10 ka.

Gas hydrates are thought to be present beneath shallow seas today, wherever sea-floor sediments have a significant organic carbon content and within the pressure-temperature window of stability of these strange ice-like materials. Mazzini et al.’s analysis of the Troll pockmark field clearly has profound implications for the possible behaviour of gas hydrates at a time of global climatic warming. As well as their destabilisation adding to methane release from onshore peat deposits currently locked by permafrost and a surge in global warming, there is an even more catastrophic possibility. The whole of the seaboard of the southern North Sea was swept by a huge tsunami about 8000 years ago, which possibly wiped out Mesolithic human occupancy of lowland Britain, the former land mass of Doggerland, and the ‘Low Countries’ of western Europe. This was created by a massive submarine landslide – the Storegga Slide just to the north of the Troll field – which may have been triggered by destabilisation of submarine gas hydrates during early Holocene warming of the oceans.

Steam-bath Earth

The Earth’s mantle probably contained a significant amount of water from the start. Its earliest history was one of intense bombardment, including the impact that formed the Moon. Together with the conversion of gravitational potential energy to heat while the core was settling out from the mantle, impacts would have kept its overall temperature high enough to prevent water vapour from condensing on the surface until such heat input ceased and heat loss by radiation allowed the surface rapidly to cool. The atmosphere would have been rich in water vapour. Evidence from zircons that are the earliest tangible materials yet recovered hint at the formation of Zr-rich magmas – probably granitic in the broad sense – about 100 Ma after the Moon-forming event (see EPN July 2001: Zircons’ window on the Hadean). Yet no trace of substantial granitic rocks that old have ever been found.

Don Baker and Kassandra Sofonio of McGill University in Montreal, Canada have considered processes other than partial melting or fractional crystallisation that may have been possible during the earliest Hadean. In particular they have looked at one thought once to be a contender in the genesis of granite and latterly sidelined (Baker, D.R. & Sofonio, K. 2017. A metasomatic mechanism for the formation of Earth’s earliest evolved crust. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, v. 463, p. 48-55; http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.epsl.2017.01.022 ). They heated powdered artificial samples that chemically resembled the Earth’s original silicate mantle in sealed double capsules – an inner part containing the silicate powder and an outer one containing water. The capsules were held at around 727°C for a time and then quenched. The outer part of each capsule was found to be a glass of roughly granite composition. The experimental design ensured that superheated water diffused across the inner-outer capsule wall. So the ‘granite’ must have formed by a metasomatic process – essentially preferential solution of its component elements in supercritical water – the experimental temperature being insufficient to partially melt the ultramafic charge in the inner capsule.

Baker and Sofonio conclude that degassing of this metasomatic fluid – silicate-rich ‘steam’ – may have produced substantial masses of sialic crust on the Earth’s surface. Removal of material produced in such a manner would also have extracted trace elements with an affinity for granite from the early mantle – so-called incompatible elements. The subsequent recycling of such granitic blobs back into the mantle may explain geochemical signs in >500 Ma younger Archaean crust – produced by ‘normal’ igneous processes – of incompatible-element enriched reservoirs in the Early mantle.

Origin of anatomically modern humans

How evolution proceeds and species arise are affected by many different processes. But, if members of every generation of the clade that led from the probable common ancestor of ourselves, Neanderthals, Denisovans and other hominins of the last 700 ka or so – widely thought to have been Homo heidelbergensis­ – were found as perfectly preserved fossils they would show gradually shifting anatomical features that from time to time and place to place would diverge to lead to different species. If, also, every specimen was accurately dated then there would be the last part of the human evolutionary bush laid out in a 3-D graphic. That is never going to be possible, of course. Human fossils are rare and there are few of them that are well-preserved. So the field of human origins throws up surprises on a regular basis, and if palaeoanthropologists were more dogmatic than most of them actually are there would be equally regular, public displays of the eating of hats.

As regards early modern H. sapiens, fossils from a couple of sites in Ethiopia have been the oldest known, at between 160 to 195 ka, for the last 15 years. However, in the 1960s quarry workers at Jebel Irhoud in SW Morocco exposed the infill of a cave network in which were found numerous items of the Levallois stone-tool technology, some human bone fragments that included a brain case and many dismembered and cut bones of prey animals. Initially they were thought to date from about 40 ka and to represent an African form of Neanderthals. Subsequently, re-evaluation of the remains revealed a greater likelihood that they were from modern humans, but too young to be of great interest. An upgraded date of ~160 ka caused them to be considered  as peripheral to the core group of Ethiopian early modern humans. DNA analyses then suggested modern humans to have split from Neanderthals about 500 ka ago. Members of the French-Moroccan team that did the original work, accompanied by other scientists, recently re-excavated the site and exhumed a much richer fossil haul that pin-pointed an anatomically modern human (AMH) provenance, albeit with some archaic characteristics (Hublin, J.-J. and 10 others, 2017. New fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco and the pan-African origin of Homo sapiens. Nature, v. 546, p. 289-294; doi:10.1038/nature22336), which can be referred to as ‘pre-modern’ H. sapiens. The bombshell stemming from their work was the precise dating of the fossils and their stratigraphic context by other members of the team (Richter, D. and 11 others. The age of the hominin fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, and the origins of the Middle Stone Age. Nature, v. 546, p. 293-296; doi:10.1038/nature22335), which yielded 315±34 ka from fire-heated flint fragments and 286±32 ka from a human tooth. Both dates are far older than the previously accepted maximum of 200 ka for AMH.

The early evolution of fully modern humans seems to have spanned the whole of Africa, rather than being set in an Ethiopian heartland, a view partly supported by a fragmentary 260 ka fossil from South Africa bearing close resemblance to the Moroccan individuals. Interestingly, Levallois stone tools, as their name suggests, are widespread in both Africa and Europe at around 300 ka, although that is not proof that AMH migrated out of Africa around 300 ka, for Neanderthals may also have been using a similar flint flaking method (another space to be watched).

See also:  Stringer C. & Galway-Witham, J., 2017. On the origin of our species.  Nature, v. 546, p. 212-215; doi:10.1038/nature 546212a.

You can find more information on migration of modern humans here.

Developments in remotely sensed data for geology

Over several decades remote sensing – the interpretation and analysis of image data – has become a central part of many geologists’ ‘toolkit’. It continues a ‘tradition’ founded in the interpretation of panchromatic (black and white), stereoscopic aerial photographs that began after World War 2. But after 1972 and the launch of the first Landsat platform, it has been served by more synoptic views from space using a variety of systems that produce data in many wavelengths of EM radiation, thereby providing opportunities to study spectral properties of the Earth’s surface. This imagery also possesses the analytical flexibility afforded by being recorded in digital form. Since the 1986 launch of the first SPOT platform digital stereoscopic potential from space entered the options for geological interpretation. The Landsat Thematic Mapper (TM) launched in 1982 expanded the spectral range of data. Previously that had been restricted to the visible and near infrared (VNIR) affected mainly by living vegetation and the iron oxy-hydroxides that are the main colorants of rock and soil and TM added a shortwave infrared (SWIR) band. Natural reflectance spectra in that region are affected by Al-OH, Mg-OH and C-O bonds in various hydroxylated silicates and carbonate minerals. The data from TM and its successor the Enhanced Thematic Mapper (ETM) resulted in an explosion of effort into lithological mapping and structural analysis. The last depended on a step-change in resolution to 15 m in the panchromatic band of the ETM system since 1993, together with 10 m stereoscopic resolution from the SPOT family, that enable confident mapping at around 1:100 000 to 1:50 000 scales.

The ETM, its successor on Landsat-8 in 2013 – the Operational Land Imager (OLI) – and the somewhat similar ESA Sentinel-2 system (2015) suffer from one major frustration. Their single broad SWIR band is unable to discriminate –OH and C-O spectral features and hence the lithologically useful range of hydroxylated silicates and carbonate mineral spectra. Also missing from the spectral ‘toolkit’ was any data relating to the major rock-forming silicates. Both drawbacks were remedied to some extent by the launch in 1999 of the Japan/US Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER). As well as the VNIR in three bands, including a stereo-image pair, this covered the mineralogically useful SWIR with 6 narrow  wavelength range bands imaging and 5 bands in the thermally emitted infrared (TIR) where common silicates show substantial spectral differences. ASTER produced primarily geoscientific data that have been found to be of enormous use in geological and mineralogical mapping at the 1:100 000 scale.

Nowadays all the data types mentioned so far, except SPOT, are available for download free of cost from the Earth Explorer site operated by the US Geological Survey (use the Data Sets tab at the EE home page): a superb resource that would suit most geological applications. Yet none of these data have spatial resolution better than 10 m. The commercial Earth observation sector has mainly focussed on increasingly finer spatial resolution, mainly panchromatic and the VNIR range of wavelengths that yield information on vegetation and surface topographic and cultural detail, for which there are many profitable markets. Apart from the follow-on to SPOT – the Pléiades system with resolution as fine as 0.5 m – data from a whole constellation of once independent hi-res systems (WorldView, Quickbird, GeoEye, IKONOS and OrbView) are now administered by one vendor Digital Globe. The finest resolution currently available publically is that of WorldView-3 (0.3 m), beyond which is the classified purview of the US intelligence community. The figure illustrates just how much more detailed geological information there is in the finest resolution data than in the same kind of image reduced to 15 m resolution, the best offered by ASTER. That detail needs to be tempered by a few facts: by comparison with the high-res image ASTER shows a regional context, i.e. large-scale geological structures; it covers more spectral bands and is therefore more revealing lithologically; the highest resolution data (WorldView-3 archived) are priced at US$14 to 19 per km2  for each of 6 different band-bundles with a minimum order of 25 km2. Note: for some areas Google Earth has coverage at high-resolution captured at several dates, though some remain at 15 m resolution (based on Landsat-7 ETM).

30cm v 15m

An area in Utah, USA, with almost 100% exposure and very low vegetation cover shown by simulated natural colour images at ~0.3 m with a scale of ~1:1225 (top) and ~15 m at ~1:61275. Credit: Google Earth

The geologist’s dream data would, I suppose, consist of many bands that divide the VNIR, SWIR and TIR into narrow wavebands so that rock and soil spectra can be accurately reproduced, thereby allowing considerable discrimination between different rock types and their main constituent minerals. Oh yes, and it would have decent resolution – better than 15 m. There is indeed such a hyperspectral instrument called CRISM and data from it can be downloaded freely but, before there is a stampede to get access, note that the acronym stands for Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars! For the Earth most hyperspectral data are captured from airborne missions, except for one orbital mission that occasionally functioned over a tiny fraction of the Earth from 2001 to 2017 – NASA’s EO-1 Hyperion system that produced 7.5 km swaths at 30 m resolution with 220 spectral bands covering the VNIR and SWIR regions. Apart from one aimed at oceanic and atmospheric issues, that will say little about rocks, NASA and ESA have no plans in this niche. One commercial developer, Satellogic of Argentina, has hyperspectral plans but only where an income stream is guaranteed, which seems to be just for crops and vegetation spanning the VNIR range. Other outfits have wish lists but few concrete plans in the geoscientific spectral range.

With pending budget cuts to NASA’s Earth science programme (9%), NOAA (22%) and the USGS (14%) demanded by the Trump administration, progress with US contributions to Earth observation can’t be anticipated with much hope. Commercial interests have to pay the shareholders and their dominant focus is on government intelligence agencies, the media, private weather forecasters and agribusiness. So do not expect another or better CRISM in Earth orbit. But it is possible to get by quite nicely at the reconnaissance, small-scale level of mapping, lithological discrimination and some mineral identification with the moderate resolution 14 spectral bands captured by ASTER. If you have the cash, then WorldView-3 offers similar panchromatic, VNIR and SWIR data options at 0.3, 1.2 and 3.7 m resolution, respectively, that should enable very intricate geological mapping.

You may learn more about geological remote sensing here.

Stepping Stones eBook

Title

A revised and updated edition of Stepping Stones: The Making of Our Home World by Steve Drury, first published in 1999, has been released as a free eBook on the book’s web site https://earthstep.wordpress.com/. The revision incorporates the hundreds of commentaries on geoscientific advances written since 2000 by Steve for earth-pages. It is a personal view of the evolution of the Earth System and the emergence of humanity from it. First published by Oxford University Press, Stepping Stones was widely acclaimed by  fellow Earth scientists and general readers.

Homo naledi: an anti-climax

In September 2015 a barrage of publicity announced the remarkable unearthing of the remains of 15 diminutive hominins, dubbed Homo nadeli, from the floor sediments of an almost inaccessible South African cave, part of the equally hyped ‘Cradle of Humankind’ UNESCO World Heritage Site near Johannesburg. An international team of lithe women speleo-archaeologists was recruited for the excavation, for which the original discoverers were incapably burly. The remains included numerous examples of still articulated intricate bones, such as those of feet and hands, and none show signs of dismemberment by large scavengers. Indeed the discovery chamber was so far from the cave entrance that such animals probably were unaware of their presence. These features and the sheer complexity of the system strongly suggested that cadavers had been deliberately taken to the chamber; implying that the deep penetration had been accomplished using fire-brand illumination. What seized the headlines was the possibility of ritual burial, although sanitary disposal or panicked refuge from predators seem equally, if not more likely.

Lee Burger and the reconstructed skull of Homo naledi

Now yet more fossils have been reported from a separate chamber at a crawling distance about 150 m away from the original but closer to the system’s main entrance (~85 m). These add at least other 3 individuals to the H. nadeli association, with sufficient similarity to indicate that all 18 belong to H. naledi. This wealth of detail enabled the team of authors (Hawks, J. and 37 others 2017. New fossil remains of Homo naledi from the Lesedi Chamber, South Africa. eLife, v. 6, online; http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.24232) to perform a detailed comparative anatomic analysis of the species. The results are a mosaic, showing some post-cranial affinities with australopithecines, H. habilis, H.floresiensis, H. erectus, Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans, and others, such as the hands and shoulders, that are not well matched with other hominins. Their crania show a similar broad spectrum of resemblances, and as regards dentition they are distinctly primitive. They are also on the small-brained side of the hominin clade. Despite the astonishing abundance of fossil material, not a single artifact was found in the cave system, despite the apparent similarity of its hands to those of ourselves and Neanderthals.

With plenty of scope for speculation, H. nadeli remains enigmatic. The big question looming over the 2015 announcement of the species was its age, the discovers suggesting about 2 Ma, and placing on the direct line of human descent. On the same day as the fossil description there appeared a multi-method dating analysis (Dirks, P.H.G.M. and 19 others 2017. eLife, v. 6, online; http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.24231.001), which showed that with little doubt that the H. nadeli association was deposited between 236 ka and 335 ka; around the time when anatomically modern humans first emerged and stone tools had undergone a >2 Ma technological evolution. To me, the only sensible conclusion at present is that H. nadeli is another addition to the 6 species living and in some cases coexisting across the late Pleistocene world, and that expansion of ideas beyond that must await DNA analysis; a definite possibility considering the age of the fossils, their seemingly good preservation in a relatively dry cave system and the new possibility of cave soils as well as bones yielding genetic materials. The leader of the research team, Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand now maintains, together with four other members of the research team, that H. nadeli may be a coelacanth-like survivor of Homo’s earliest diversification and that ‘we cannot exclude that this lineage was responsible for the production of Acheulean or Middle Stone Age tool industries’.

Barras, C. 2017. Homo naledi is only 250,000 years old – here’s why that matters. New Scientist, 6 May 2017 Issue

Sample, I. 2017. New haul of Homo naledi bones sheds surprising light on human evolution. The Guardian, 9 May 2017

Detecting the presence of hominins in ancient soil samples

Out on the plains countless herbivores fertilise the ground by continual urination and defecation. A friend’s sheep are doing just that in the small field that came with my current home while they are keeping the grass under control.  Millions of hectares of prime agricultural land in China are kept fertile through disposal of human night soil from ‘honey wagons’ every day; it is even fed to fishes in small ponds. Such a nice economy also donates the DNA of the animal and plant inhabitants to the soil system. In 2015 analysis of environmental DNA from permafrost in Siberia and Alaska produced ‘bar codes’ for the now vanished ecosystems of what was  mammoth steppe during the climate decline to the last glacial maximum and the subsequent warming. The study revealed mammoth and pre-Columbian horse DNA and changes in the steppe vegetation, from which it was concluded that the steppe underwent regional extinction pulses of its megafauna linked to rapid climate ups and downs connected with Dansgaard-Oeschger cycles. It was but a small step to see the potential for studying distribution and timing of various hominins’ occupation of caves from the soils preserved within them, without depending on generally very rare occurrences of human skeletal remains.

Tourists at the entrance to Denisova Cave, Rus...

Tourists at the entrance to Denisova Cave, Russia (credit: Wikipedia)

The Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, now famous for extracting DNA from Neanderthal, Denisovan and possibly H. antecessor fossils, has applied the environmental DNA approach to sediments from 7 caves in France, Belgium, Spain, Croatia and Russia that span the period from 550 to 14 ka (Slon, V. and 30 others 2017.  Neandertal and Denisovan DNA from Pleistocene sediments. Science, v. 356 (online publication); doi:10.1126/science.aam9695). The sites had previously yielded fossils and/or artefacts. All of them contained mitochondrial DNA from diverse large mammals, four including archaic human genetic material supplied by Neanderthal individuals and Denisovans in the case of the Denisova cave. A key finding was Neanderthal mtDNA in one sedimentary layer that contained no skeletal remains – decay of a body was probably not involved. In two cases the DNA was from more than one individual. A variety of tests showed that surprisingly large quantities of DNA survive in soil and that it is spread evenly in sediment rather than being present in spots – an indication of derivation from urine, excreta or decayed soft tissue.

Although the study does not add to knowledge of hominin genetics, it confirms that the methodology is sufficiently advanced and efficient to detect hominin presence in fossil-free sediment. So this approach seems set to become a standard for many sites, such as that from California reported in the previous post, which suggest a human influence, or any cave sediments for that matter. Although skeletal remains are essential for reconstruction of bodily characteristics, hominin phylogeny seems set to cut loose from fossils. Hitherto suspected species’ presence in the time period where DNA analysis is feasible may be detected, such as Asian H. erectus. It may become possible to map or extend the geographic ranges of Denisovans and Neanderthals. Perhaps species new to science will emerge.

More on late Pleistocene hominin genetics here

Wade, E. 2017. DNA from cave soil reveals ancient human occupants. Science, v. 356, p. 363.

Wade, E. 2017. DNA from cave soil reveals ancient human occupants. Science, v. 356, p. 363.