Category Archives: Anthropology and Geoarchaeology

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; 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;, 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.

Pre-sapiens hominins reached North America?

In 1991-2 palaeontologists excavated a site near San Diego, California where broken bones had been found. These turned out to be the disarticulated remains of an extinct mastodon. One feature of the site was the association of several large cobbles with bones of large limbs that seemed to have been smashed either to extract marrow or as source of tool-making material. The cobbles showed clear signs or pounding, such as loss of flakes – one flake could be fitted exactly to a scar in a cobble – pitted surfaces and small radiating fractures. The damage to one cobble suggested that it had been used as an anvil, the others being hammer stones.  Broken pieces of rock identical to the hammer stones were found among the heap of bones. No other artefacts were found, and the bones show no sign of marks left by cutting meat from them with stone tools. The breakage patterns of the bones included spiral fractures that experimental hammering of large elephant and cow bones suggest form when bone is fresh. Other clear signs of deliberate breakage are impact notches and small bone flakes. Two detached, almost spherical heads of mastodon femora suggest that marrow was the target for the hammering and confirmed the breakage was deliberate.


Artist’s impression of American mastodon. (credit: Wikipedia)

Since the sediment stratum in which the remains occurred consists of fine sands and silt, typical of a low-energy river system, the chances that the cobbles had been washed into association with the mastodon are very small. The interpretation of the site is that it was the result of opportunistic exploitation of a partial carcase of a young adult mastodon by humans. In the early 1990s attempts were made to date the bones using the radiocarbon method, but failed due to insufficient preserved collagen. That the site may have been much older than the period of known occupation of North America by ancestors of native people (post 14.5 ka) emerged from attempts at optically stimulated luminescence dating of sand grains that can suggest the age of burial. These suggested burial by at least 60 to 70 ka ago. It was only when the uranium-series disequilibrium method was used on bone fragments that full significance of the site emerged. The results indicated that they had been buried at 130.7±9.4 ka (Holen, S.R. and 10 others 2017. A 130,000-year-old archaeological site in southern California, USA. Nature, v.  544, p. 479—493; doi:10.1038/nature22065 – full paper and supplements available free)

Not only is the date almost ten times that of the earliest widely accepted signs of Homo sapiens in the Americas, the earliest anatomically modern humans known to have left Africa are around the same age, but restricted to the Levant. The earliest evidence that modern humans had reached East Asia and Australasia through their eastward migration out of Africa is no more than 60 ka. The date from southern California is around the start of the interglacial (Eemian) before the one in which we live now. It may well have been possible then, as ~14 ka ago, to walk across the Bering Straits due to low sea level, or even by using coast-hugging boats – hominins had reached islands in the Mediterranean and the Indonesian peninsula certainly by 100 ka, and probably earlier. But whoever exploited the Californian mastodon marrow must have been cold-adapted to achieve such a migration. While the authors speculate about ‘archaic’ H. sapiens the best candidates would have been hominins known to have been present in East Asia: H. erectus, Neaderthals and the elusive Denisovans.

Surely there will be reluctance to accept such a suggestion without further evidence, such as tools and, of course, hominin skeletal remains. But these long-delayed findings seem destined to open up a new horizon for American palaeoanthropology, at least in California.

You can find more information on hominin migration here.

Yukon colonised during Last Glacial Maximum

For many years anthropologists were certain that the Americas remained outside the human realm until the great icecap of North America had begun to melt decisively. This view stemmed partly from the only conceived route being across the exposed floor of the Bering Sea when sea-level had fallen to leave it as a landmass known as Beringia. The other literal stumbling block had been the glacial blockage of the only lowland corridor from Alaska to the Great Plains which roughly follows the Alberta – British Columbia border in Canada. There is abundant evidence that the corridor did not become ice-free until about 13 ka, an important fact that for a long while bolstered the Clovis-First hypothesis, from the eponymous and highly distinctive stone tools that date back to just after that time. After a long, sturdy rearguard action by its devotees that view was transcended by finds of earlier tools with dates as old as 15.5 ka that extend close to the southernmost tip of South America. Studies of Y-chromosome DNA from living First Nations men that suggested that all early Americans stemmed from 4 separate colonising populations who may have entered via Beringia by different routes, including along the Pacific coast. A possible common ancestor of all native Americans has turned up from the mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA of a fossil skeleton from near Lake Baikal in Siberia who lived about 24 ka ago. But yet another twist has emerged from the Yukon Territory of Northern Canada.

Beringia Land Bridge. Animated gif of its prog...

Beringia Land Bridge. Animation of its development from 21.000 BC to modern times.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since 1987 it has been known that animal bones with clear signs of butchery occurred in the Bluefish Cave on the Yukon – Alaska border. Dating of the bones by the 14C method seemed to support human occupation there during the Last Glacial Maximum; highly controversial at the time, in the absence of any other sites of that age in the whole Americas. The material has now been re-examined and dated by a more advanced radiocarbon method (Bourgeon, L. et al. 2017. Earliest human presence in North America dated to the Last Glacial Maximum: new radiocarbon dates from Bluefish Caves, Canada. PLoS ONE, v. 12; doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0169486). This work has confirmed the earlier view since the ages of bones range from 24 to 12 ka. But the discovery of what seems long-term occupation under the most arduous glacial conditions is not the only outcome of the research. One hypothesis for the genetic diversity among living indigenous people of the Americas is that their forebears, the first people of the Americas, may have been from genetically isolated populations stranded on Beringia, yet surviving eventually to migrate southward once climate warmed. The ‘Beringian standstill hypothesis’ suggest that the small population underwent genetic drift for about eight thousand years, their descendants inheriting the genetic diversity produced by this process. Bluefish Cave is probably where some of those pioneers waited-out the Ice Age

Neanderthals and dental hygiene

Teeth are the most likely parts of skeletons to survive for long periods because of their armour by a layer of enamel made of hydroxyapatite (Ca5(PO4)3(OH)). Dental enamel is the hardest material in the bodies of vertebrate animals and lies midway between fluorite and feldspar on Moh’s scale of hardness (value 5). Like the mineral apatite, teeth survive abrasion, comminution and dissolution for long periods in the surface environment. Subdivision of fossil hominin species and even among different groups of living humans relies to a marked extent on the morphology of their teeth’s biting and chewing surface. Although there are intriguing examples in Neolithic jawbones of dental cavities having been filled it is rather lack of attention to teeth that characterises hominin fossils. As well as horrifying signs of mandibular erosion due to massive root abscesses, a great many hominin remains carry large accumulations of dental plaque or calculus made of mineralised biofilm laid down by oral bacteria. Even assiduous brushing only delays the build up. Grisly as this inevitability might seem, plaque is an excellent means of preserving not only the bacteria but traces of what an individual ate. As fossil DNA is a guide to ancestry and relatedness among fossil hominins, so far going back to about 430 ka in the case of a Spanish Homo heidelburgensis, plaque potentially may reveal details of diet and to some extent social behaviour elaborating beyond the possibilities presented by carbon isotopes and dental wear patterns.

Plaque deposits have already shown that Neanderthals had a very varied vegetable diet and that they cooked their food, the sugars thereby released encouraging bacterial biofilms. There have even been hints that they used medicinal herbs, such as yarrow and chamomile. Now a large multinational team of scientists has taken this fascinating line of study a step further using short DNA fragments to identify the actual oral microbes and even plant and animal species that dominated the diets of 8 cave-dwelling Neanderthals found in Spain, Belgium and Italy (Weyrich, L.S. and 30 others 2017. Neanderthal behaviour, diet, and disease inferred from ancient DNA in dental calculus. Nature, v. 543; online doi:10.1038/nature21674). The Spanish individuals found in El Sidrón cave seem to have been mainly vegetarian (mushrooms, pine nuts and edible moss) whereas two from the Spy cave in Belgium feasted on wooly rhinoceros and mouflon sheep. One of the El Sidrón Neanderthals had a dental abscess, and was probably in great pain, and whose calculus contained evidence of ingestion of tissue from poplar trees, known to contain salicylic acid (the active ingredient in aspirin): an example of self-medication. The unfortunate individual was also suffering from acute diarrhoea brought on by a eukaryote parasite (microsporidium). Astonishingly, DNA from several plant fungi, including Penicillium rubens (penicillin) also occurred in this individual’s calculus, from eating mouldy plant material: predating modern antibiotics by more than forty-five thousand years!

More predictable findings from the unfortunate El Sidrón individual was a spectrum of common plaque colonising bacteria. But another surprise was Methanobrevibacter oralis, an archaea common in the human mouth ecosystem, for which a complete genome was reconstructed. It is different from that in the Methanobrevibacter oralis found in living humans and the team were able to use a molecular clock approach to date the divergence between the two sub-species. This seems to have occurred between 112-143 ka ago, long after the divergence of Neanerthals and anatomically modern humans, judged to be around 450 to 750 ka ago. The authors suggest that ‘commensal microbial species were transferred between the two hosts during subsequent interactions, potentially in the Near East’. Two alternative ‘interactions’ occurred to one commentator: kissing or exchange of chewed food (Callaway, E, 2017. Plaque DNA hints at Neanderthal lifestyle. Nature, v. 543, p. 163). Intriguingly the date, albeit imprecise, overlaps with estimates for the timing of Neanderthal – modern human interbreeding as the latter began to leave Africa: not only do living non-Africans share genes with Neanderthals, the may also share saliva and oral bacteria.

For more information on recent human evolution see here.

Denisovan(?) remains in the garden

On the edge of the small town of Lingjing near Xuchang City in Henan Province, China, local people have long practiced intensive vegetable gardening because the local soil is naturally irrigated by the water table beneath the flood plain deposits of the Yinghe River. In the mid 1960s, around a small spring, they began to find dozens of small stone tools together with animal bones. Only in 2005, after the spring had stopped flowing, did systematic excavation begin (Li, Z.-Y. et al. 2017. Late Pleistocene archaic human crania from Xuchang, China. Science, v. 355, p. 969-972; doi: 10.1126/science.aal2482) About 3.5 m below the surface tools and bone fragments, including one with a carved representation of a bird, occurred just above the base of the modern soil profile. Radiocarbon dating of charcoal from the layer clustered around 13 500 years ago, just before the start of the Younger Dryas cooling episode; probably products of modern humans, although no human remains were found in the layer. Continued excavation penetrated sediments free of fossils and tools down to a depth of 8 m, when stone tools and bone fragments began to turn up again through the lowest 2 m of sediment. Optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating of mineral grains, which shows the last time that sediments were exposed to sunlight, produced much older dates between 78 to 123 ka. The thousands of stone flakes and cores, and cut marks on the animal bones found through the fossil-rich layer suggests that this was a site long used for tool making and food preparation, that had begun in the last interglacial period. Among the bones were fragments of the crania of as many as five individual humans.

Who were they? Their age range is tens of thousands of years before anatomically modern humans began to migrate into east Asia, so they are likely to have been an earlier human group. Homo erectus is known to have inhabited China since as early as 1.6 Ma ago and may be a possibility. The other possible group are the Denisovans, known only from their DNA in a small finger bone from a cave in eastern Siberia. Fragments of Denisovan DNA are famously present in that of many living indigenous people from eastern Asia, Melanesia and the Americas, but hardly at all in west Asians and Europeans. They also interbred with Neanderthals and may share a common ancestor with us and them, who lived about 700 ka ago.

Map showing the proportion of the genome inferred to be Denisovan in ancestry in diverse non-Africans. The color scale is not linear to allow saturation of the high Denisova proportions in Oceania (bright red) and better visualization of the peak of Denisova proportion in South Asia. (Credit: Sankararaman et al./Current Biology 2016;

Map showing the proportion of the genome inferred to be Denisovan in ancestry in non-Africans. The color scale ranges from black – 0, through greens – present to red – highest . (Credit: Sankararaman et al./Current Biology 2016;

Unfortunately the human bones are completely fragmented and lack any teeth, jaw bones or elements of the face. However, the Chinese-US team used sophisticated computer refitting of CT-scanned fragments to reconstruct two of the crania, revealing one individual with prominent brow ridges and a flat-topped skull extended towards the back, similar to that of Neanderthals but with a much larger brain than H. erectus. The semi-circular canals associated with the ears, but used in balancing, are well preserved and also resemble those of Neanderthals. Yet east Asia has yielded not a single Neanderthal fossil. Could these be the elusive Denisovans? Even if more diagnostic bones turn up, especially teeth, such is the state of late hominin taxonomy that only DNA will provide definitive results: the Denisovans are defined entirely by DNA. The authors, perhaps wisely, do not speculate, but others may not be able to resist the temptation.

For more information on recent human evolution see here.

Gibbons, A. 2017. Close relative of Neandertals unearthed in China. Science, v. 355, p. 899; doi: 10.1126/science.355.6328.899

Human penis bone lost through monogamy?

The baculum or penis bone is arguably the most variable of mammalian bones, present in some species but not others. Among those in which it does occur the baculum varies enormously in shape, length and breadth relative to body size. This makes it likely to have been subject to the most divergent evolution among mammals. Yet its evolution has remained somewhat puzzling until recently. Observation has shown that the width of the baculum in male house mice is positively correlated with reproductive success. So one factor in the bone’s evolution may be postcopulatory sexual selection: female mice seem to favour males well endowed in this department once they have mated with them, a notion supported by careful laboratory experimentation. The physical role of the penis bone is to support and protect the penis during sexual intercourse. Sturdy dimensions are increasingly efficacious the longer the duration and the greater the frequency of copulation, particularly among polygamous and seasonally breeding species. They also tend to delay or inhibit a female mating with another male after copulation.

Walrus baculum, approximately 22 inches long

Walrus baculum, approximately 0.6 metres long (credit: Wikipedia)

Matilda Brindle and Christopher Opie of University College London have applied advanced phylogenetic statistical analysis to data on the dimensions of penis bones among 2000 mammal species (Brindle, M. & Opie, C. 2016. Postcopulatory sexual selection influences baculum evolution in primates and carnivores. Proceedings of the Royal Society, B, v. 283, doi: 10.1098/rspb.2016.1736) and suggest that the baculum first evolved in mammals between 145 to 95 Ma ago, earlier mammals likely having no penis bone. Ancestral primates and carnivorous mammals, however, were so endowed. Yet some mammalian species have lost the baculum.  Among the primates human males do not have one whereas male chimpanzees and bonobos, with which we share a last common ancestor, do: both are boisterously promiscuous whereas humans are pair-bonded to a large degree.

The issue of polygamy versus monogamy among human ancestors, and when the latter emerged, continues to exercise palaeoanthropologists. The former in other living primates is often associated with a marked contrast in size between males and females – sexual dimorphism. The earliest hominins, such as species of Australopithecus, did exhibit such dimorphism whereas species of Homo show significantly less size contrast, which some have taken to mark the emergence of pair-bonding amongst members of the earliest human species to be passed on to their successors. Another indicator of competitiveness among primate males for females, and their dominance over the latter, is the near universal possession of large canine teeth among males of polygamous primates; an odd feature for species whose diet is dominantly and often exclusively vegetarian. Not only do living humans not have prominent canines, neither do any known fossil hominins. Despite the views of a small minority of anthropologists who demand that modern human females won social parity with males only in the last 100 thousand years, only to lose it following the Neolithic ‘revolution’, the physical evidence suggests that a trend towards that emerged with other distinct characteristics of hominins and concretised in early Homo. An assiduous search for fossil hominin penis bones may yet reveal the moment of monogamy.

Tree-climbing australopithecines

We know that Lucy, the famous Australopithecus afarensis, could climb trees because her many bone fractures show that she fell out of a tree to her death. But that does not mean her species was an habitual tree-climber: plenty of modern humans fall to their deaths from trees, cliffs and the like. But the issue seems to have been resolved by using X-ray tomography of Lucy’s limb bones (Ruff, C.B. et al. 2016. Limb bone structural proportions and locomotor behaviour in A.L. 288-1 (“Lucy”).  PLOS ONE v. 11, e0166095. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0166095) during the skeleton’s triumphal series of exhibits in the US.

The authors, including two of those who showed that Lucy died after a fall using similar data, compared the digital 3-D models of her surviving arm- and leg bones with those of other hominins and living primates, estimating their relative strengths at different positions. Lucy was probably stronger in the arm than in the leg, but not to the same degree as chimpanzees. This is a feature that would significantlyassist climbing , but her bipedal locomotion on the ground would have been only slightly different from that of later Homo species. If anything, her strength relative to size would have been greater than ours, perhaps reflecting less reliance on tools for getting food and defending herself. But almost certainly Australopithecus afarensis habitually spend more time in trees, perhaps foraging and as a defence against predation, especially at night.

The new data for Lucy allows palaeoanthropologists to better judge the capabilities of other hominins. Interestingly Homo habilis, the earliest of our genus, may have had similar habits. But later species, beginning with H. erectus/ergaster, were as Earth-bound as we are. This suggests a shift in hominin ecology from an early and probably long history of semi-arboreal behavior until humans became masters of their terrain about 1.9 Ma ago, probably through their invention of better tools and the controlled use of fire.

Read more about human evolution here and here

Neanderthal culture confirmed

The Châtelperronian material culture represents the earliest sign of the Upper Palaeolithic in Europe and its products span a period from about 45 to 40 ka. It includes stone tools, such as points and long, thin blades with a single cutting edge and a blunt back, reminiscent of a modern knife, and others with notched, or denticulate edges that resemble saw blades. A great many of the tools, including ivory and bone ones, are probably designed for working and stitching skins. But the most revealing worked objects are animal teeth, shells and fossils that are either bored or grooved to be strung together. The best have been found in the Grotte du Renne in eastern France. The most controversial aspect of the Châtelperronian is that its artefacts are sometimes found with the fossil remains of Neanderthals who had previously produced less sophisticated, Mousterian tools since around 160 ka. The controversy centres on whether or not Neanderthals created the Châtelperronian culture, and if so, did they develop them independently or through cultural exchange with or copying from the newly arrived anatomically modern humans (AMH).

Science Magazine

Châtelperronian ornaments from the Grotte du Renne eastern France, probably parts of a necklace. (Credit: ©Marian Vanhaeren, CNRS, University of Bordeaux)

The Grotte du Renne material is especially rich in ornaments, but insufficient fossil material is present to tell from anatomical characteristics whether or not they were made by AMH or Neanderthals. It has now become possible using traces of bone proteins to detect hominin bone fragments and DNA to assess which group is implicated (Welker, F. and 127 others, 2016. Palaeoproteomic evidence identifies archaic hominins associated with the Châtelperronian at the Grotte du Renne. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Analyses of mtDNA and radiometric dating of the bones that yielded it show that the Grotte du Renne tools and ornaments link with Neanderthals who lived there about 37 ka ago. Interestingly, the stratigraphic horizon beneath the definite Neanderthal occupation level contains their earlier, Mousterian artefacts. So it seems that they developed new manufacturing techniques and material culture. Yet, the findings do not resolve the issue of independent invention or copying AMH methodology.

Importantly, Grotte du Renne shows that Neanderthals, even if they copied AMH techniques, were capable of appreciating, producing and using personal ornamentation: they could learn and transmit ideas. In that respect, here is support for the notion that, apart from significant anatomical differences from AMH they were not that different intellectually.

More on Neanderthals, Denisovans and anatomically modern humans

Wade, L. 2016. Neandertals made jewelry, proteins confirm. Science, v. 353, p. 1350.

Out of Africa: a little less blurred?

DNA from the mitochondria of humans who live on all the habitable continents shows such a small variability that all of us must have had a common maternal ancestor, and she lived in Africa about 160 ka ago. Since this was first suggested by Rebecca Cann, Mark Stoneking and Allan Wilson of the University of California, Berkeley in 1987 there has been a stream of data and publications – subsequently using Y-chromosome DNA and even whole genomes – that both confirm an African origin for Homo sapiens and illuminate it. Analyses of the small differences in global human genetics also chart the routes and – using a ‘molecular clock’ technique – the timings of geographic and population branchings during migration out of Africa. As more and better quality data emerges so the patterns change and become more intricate: an illustration of the view that ‘the past is always a work in progress’. The journal Nature published four papers online in the week ending 25 September 2016 that demonstrate the ‘state of the art’.

Three of these papers add almost 800 new, high-quality genomes to the 1000 Genomes Project that saw completion in 2015. The new data cover 270 populations from around the world including those of regions that have previously been understudied for a variety of reasons: Africa, Australia and Papua-New Guinea. All three genomic contributions are critically summarized by a Nature News and Views article (Tucci, S & Akey, J.L. 2016. A map of human wanderlust. The fourth paper pieces together accurately dated fossil and archaeological findings with data on climate and sea-level changes derived mainly from isotopic analyses of marine sediments and samples from polar ice sheets (Timmermann, A & Friedrich, T. 2016. Late Pleistocene climate drivers of early human migration. Nature, doi:10.1038/nature19365). Axel Timmermann and Tobias Friedrich of the University of Hawaii have attempted to simulate the overall dispersal of humans during the last 125 ka according to how they adapted to environmental conditions; mainly the changing vegetation cover as aridity varied geographically, together with the opening of potential routes out of Africa via the Straits of Bab el Mandab and through what is now termed the Middle East or Levant. They present their results as a remarkable series of global maps that suggest both the geographic spread of human migrants and how population density may have changed geographically through the last glacial cycle. Added to this are maps of the times of arrival of human populations across the world, according to a variety of migration scenarios. Note: the figure below estimates when AMH may have arrived in different areas and the population densities that environmental conditions at different times could have supported had they done so. Europe is shown as being possibly settled at around 70-75 ka, and perhaps having moderately high densities for AMH populations. Yet no physical evidence of European AMH is known before about 40 ka. Anatomically modern humans could have been in Europe before that time but failed to diffuse towards it, or were either repelled by or assimilated completely into its earlier Neanderthal population: perhaps the most controversial aspect of the paper.


Estimated arrival time since the last continuous settlement of anatomically modern human migrants from Africa (top); estimated population densities around 60 thousand years ago. (Credit: Axel Timmermann University of Hawaii)

The role of climate change and even major volcanic activity – the 74 ka explosion of Toba in Indonesia – in both allowing or forcing an exodus from African homelands and channelling the human ‘line of march’ across Eurasia has been speculated on repeatedly. Now Timmermann and Friedrich have added a sophisticated case for episodic waves of migration across Arabia and the Levant at 106-94, 89-73, 59-47 and 45-29 ka. These implicate the role of Milankovich’s 21 ka cycle of Earth’s axial precession in opening windows of opportunity for both the exodus and movement through Eurasia; effectively like opening and closing valves for the flow of human movement. The paper is critically summarised by a Nature News and Views article (de Menocal, P.B. & Stringer, C. 2016. Climate and peopling of the world. Nature, doi:10.1038/nature19471.

This multiple-dispersal model for the spread of anatomically modern humans (AMH) finds some support from one of the genome papers (Pangani, L. and 98 others 2016. Genomic analyses inform on migration events during the peopling of Eurasia. Nature (online). A genetic signature in present-day Papuans suggests that at least 2% of their genome originates from an early and largely extinct expansion of AMH from Africa about 120 ka ago, compared with a split of all mainland Eurasians from African at around 75 ka. It appears from Pangani and co-workers’ analyses that later dispersals out of Africa contributed only a small amount of ancestry to Papuan individuals. The other two genome analyses (Mallick, S. and 79 others 2016. The Simons Genome Diversity Project: 300 genomes from 142 diverse populations. Nature (online); Malaspinas, A.-S. and 74 others 2016. A genomic history of Aboriginal Australia. Nature (online). suggest a slightly different scenario, that all present-day non-Africans branched from a single ancestral population. In the case of Malaspinas et al. an immediate separation of two waves of AMH migrants led to settlement of Australasia in one case and to the rest of Mainland Eurasia. Yet their data suggest that Australasians diverged into Papuan and Australian population between 25-40 ka ago. Now that is a surprise, because during the lead-up to the last glacial maximum at around 20 ka, sea level dropped to levels that unified the exposed surfaces of Papua and Australia, making it possible to walk from one to the other. These authors appeal to a vast hypersaline lake in the emergent plains, which may have deterred crossing the land bridge. Mallick et al. see an early separation between migrants from Africa who separately populated the west and east of Eurasia, with possible separation of Papuans and Australians from the second group.  These authors also show that the rate at which Eurasians accumulated mutations was about 5% faster than happened among Africans. Interestingly, Mallick et al. addressed the vexed issue of the origin of the spurt in cultural, particularly artistic, creativity after 50 ka that characterizes Eurasian archaeology. Although their results do not rule out genetic changes outside Africa linked to cultural change, they commented as follows:

‘… however, genetics is not a creative force, and instead responds to selection pressures imposed by novel environmental conditions or lifestyles. Thus, our results provide evidence against a model in which one or a few mutations were responsible for the rapid developments in human behaviour in the last 50,000 years. Instead, changes in lifestyles due to cultural innovation or exposure to new environments are likely to have been driving forces behind the rapid transformations in human behaviour …’.

Variations in interpretation among the four papers undoubtedly stem from the very different analytical approaches to climate and genomic data sets, and variations within the individual sets of DNA samples. So it will probably be some time before theoretical studies of the drivers of migration and work on global human genomics and cultural development find themselves unified. And we await with interest the pooling of results from all the different genetics labs and agreement on a common data-mining approach.