Follow by Email

Thursday, February 26, 2009

13,000-Year-Old Stone Tool Cache in Colorado Shows Evidence of Camel, Horse Butchering

13,000-Year-Old Stone Tool Cache in Colorado Shows Evidence of Camel, Horse Butchering

February 25, 2009

A biochemical analysis of a rare Clovis-era stone tool cache recently unearthed in the city limits of Boulder, Colo., indicates some of the implements were used to butcher ice-age camels and horses that roamed North America until their extinction about 13,000 years ago, according to a University of Colorado at Boulder study.

The study is the first to identify protein residue from extinct camels on North American stone tools and only the second to identify horse protein residue on a Clovis-age tool, said CU-Boulder Anthropology Professor Douglas Bamforth, who led the study. The cache is one of only a handful of Clovis-age artifact caches that have been unearthed in North America, said Bamforth, who studies Paleoindian culture and tools.

The Clovis culture is believed by many archaeologists to coincide with the time the first Americans arrived on the continent from Asia via the Bering Land Bridge about 13,000 to 13,500 years ago, Bamforth said.

Named the Mahaffy Cache after Boulder resident and landowner Patrick Mahaffy, the collection is one of only two Clovis caches -- the other is from Washington state -- that have been analyzed for protein residue from ice-age mammals, said Bamforth. In addition to the camel and horse residue on the artifacts, a third item from the Mahaffy Cache is the first Clovis tool ever to test positive for sheep, and a fourth tested positive for bear.

Dozens of species of North American mammals went extinct by the end of the Pleistocene, including American camels, American horses, woolly mammoth, dire wolves, short-faced bears, saber-toothed cats, woolly rhinos and giant ground sloths. While some scientists speculate ice-age mammals disappeared as a result of overhunting, climate change or even the explosion of a wayward asteroid, the reasons are still unresolved, Bamforth said.

The Mahaffy Cache consists of 83 stone implements ranging from salad plate-sized, elegantly crafted bifacial knives and a unique tool resembling a double-bitted axe to small blades and flint scraps. Discovered in May 2008 by Brant Turney -- head of a landscaping crew working on the Mahaffy property -- the cache was unearthed with a shovel under about 18 inches of soil and was packed tightly into a hole about the size of a large shoebox. It appeared to have been untouched for thousands of years, Bamforth said.

Although the surface of the house lot had been lowered by construction work over the years, an analysis of photos from the Mahaffy Cache excavation site by CU-Boulder geological sciences Emeritus Professor Peter Birkeland confirmed the approximate age of sediment layer containing the Clovis implements. The site appears to be on the edge of an ancient drainage that ran northeast from Boulder's foothills, said Bamforth.

"The idea that these Clovis-age tools essentially fell out of someone's yard in Boulder is astonishing," he said. "But the evidence I've seen gives me no reason to believe the cache has been disturbed since the items were placed there for storage about 13,000 years ago."

All 83 artifacts were shipped to the anthropology Professor Robert Yohe of the Laboratory of Archaeological Science at California State, Bakersfield for protein residue tests that were funded by Mahaffy. The protein residue on the artifacts was tested against various animal anti-sera, a procedure similar to standard allergy tests and which can narrow positive reactions down to specific mammalian families, but not to genera or species.

"I was somewhat surprised to find mammal protein residues on these tools, in part because we initially suspected that the Mahaffy Cache might be ritualistic rather than a utilitarian," said Yohe. "There are so few Clovis-age tool caches that have been discovered that we really don't know very much about them.'

While the quality and patterns on several of the artifacts resemble Clovis stonework, "It was the camel and horse protein results that were the clincher for me," said Bamforth. "We haven't had camels or horses around here since the late Pleistocene." The artifacts that showed animal protein residues were each tested three times to ensure accuracy.

The artifacts were buried in a coarse, sandy sediment overlain by dark, clay-like soil and appear to have been cached on the edge of an ancient stream, said Bamforth. "It looks like someone gathered together some of their most spectacular tools and other ordinary scraps of potentially useful material and stuck them all into a small hole in the ground, fully expecting to come back at a later date and retrieve them."

Bamforth said he knew immediately that much of the stone used to craft the tools in the cache originated from Colorado's Western Slope and perhaps as far north as southern Wyoming. The stone appears to have come from at least four distinct regions, including sites in Colorado's Middle Park south of Steamboat Springs, he said.

Bamforth believes the type of people who buried the Mahaffy Cache "lived in small groups and forged relationships over large areas." "I'm skeptical that they wandered widely, and they may have been bound together by a larger human network." A single individual could have easily carried all of the Mahaffy Cache tools a significant distance, he said.

One of the tools, a stunning, oval-shaped bifacial knife that had been sharpened all the way around, is almost exactly the same shape, size and width of an obsidian knife found in a Clovis cache known as the Fenn Cache from south of Yellowstone National Park, said Bamforth. "Except for the raw material, they are almost identical," he said. "I wouldn't stake my reputation on it, but I could almost imagine the same person making both tools."

Climatic evidence indicates the Boulder area was cooler and wetter in the late Pleistocene and receding glaciers would have been prominent along the Front Range of Colorado, he said. "The kind of animals that were wandering around present-day Boulder at the end of the last ice age -- elephants, camels, huge bears and ground sloths -- are creatures we would expect to see in a zoo today."

A 2008 study led by the University of Oregon offers evidence that a cadre of comets exploded over North America about 12,900 years ago, triggering massive fires that caused the extinction of ice-age mammals and perhaps even the Clovis people. The evidence is based on a thin layer of microscopic diamonds found in ancient soil layers that could only have been created by searing heat and pressure transforming carbon on Earth's surface.

Mahaffy, who initially thought the stone tools were just a few hundred years old, called the CU-Boulder anthropology department the day of the discovery, and Bamforth came to the examine the cache the following day. "I think it's safe to say Doug got pretty excited based on his background and knowledge of the area," said Mahaffy, a Boulder biotechnology entrepreneur. The high-tech tests that confirmed the antiquity of the tools "are a nice marriage between modern biotechnology and anthropology," Mahaffy said.

"There is a magic to these artifacts," said Mahaffy. "One of the things you don't get from just looking at them is how incredible they feel in your hand --they are almost ergonomically perfect and you can feel how they were used. It is a wonderful connection to the people who shared this same land a long, long time ago." Mahaffy said the artifacts will likely wind up in a museum except for a few of the smaller pieces, which will be reburied at the cache site.

To access images of the Mahaffy Cache go to and type "Mahaffy" into the search box. To watch an audio slideshow on the research, go to


Douglas Bamforth, 303 492-7586
Jim Scott, (303) 492-3114

'Oldest English words' identified

Reading University researchers claim "I", "who", "we", "two" ,
"three" and "five" are among the most ancient, dating back tens of
thousands of years.

'Oldest English words' identified

Some of the oldest words in English have been identified, scientists

Reading University researchers claim "I", "we", "two" and "three" are
among the most ancient, dating back tens of thousands of years.

Their computer model analyses the rate of change of words in English
and the languages that share a common heritage.

The team says it can predict which words are likely to become extinct
- citing "squeeze", "guts", "stick" and "bad" as probable first

"We use a computer to fit a range of models that tell us how rapidly
these words evolve," said Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at the
University of Reading.

"We fit a wide range, so there's a lot of computation involved; and
that range then brackets what the true answer is and we can estimate
the rates at which these things are replaced through time."

Sound and concept

Across the Indo-European languages - which include most of the
languages spoken from Europe to the Asian subcontinent - the vocal
sound made to express a given concept can be similar.

New words for a concept can arise in a given language, utilising
different sounds, in turn giving a clue to a word's relative age in
the language.

At the root of the Reading University effort is a lexicon of 200 words
that is not specific to culture or technology, and is therefore likely
to represent concepts that have not changed across nations or

"We have lists of words that linguists have produced for us that tell
us if two words in related languages actually derive from a common
ancestral word," said Professor Pagel.
“ When we speak to each other we're playing this massive game of
Chinese whispers ”
Mark Pagel, University of Reading

"We have descriptions of the ways we think words change and their
ability to change into other words, and those descriptions can be
turned into a mathematical language," he added.

The researchers used the university's IBM supercomputer to track the
known relations between words, in order to develop estimates of how
long ago a given ancestral word diverged in two different languages.

They have integrated that into an algorithm that will produce a list
of words relevant to a given date.

"You type in a date in the past or in the future and it will give you
a list of words that would have changed going back in time or will
change going into the future," Professor Pagel told BBC News.

"From that list you can derive a phrasebook of words you could use if
you tried to show up and talk to, for example, William the Conqueror."

That is, the model provides a list of words that are unlikely to have
changed from their common ancestral root by the time of William the

Words that have not diverged since then would comprise similar sounds
to their modern descendants, whose meanings would therefore probably
be recognisable on sound alone.

However, the model cannot offer a guess as to what the ancestral words
were. It can only estimate the likelihood that the sound from a modern
English word might make some sense if called out during the Battle of

Dirty business

What the researchers found was that the frequency with which a word is
used relates to how slowly it changes through time, so that the most
common words tend to be the oldest ones.

For example, the words "I" and "who" are among the oldest, along with
the words "two", "three", and "five". The word "one" is only slightly

The word "four" experienced a linguistic evolutionary leap that makes
it significantly younger in English and different from other Indo-
European languages.

Meanwhile, the fastest-changing words are projected to die out and be
replaced by other words much sooner.

For example, "dirty" is a rapidly changing word; currently there are
46 different ways of saying it in the Indo-European languages, all
words that are unrelated to each other. As a result, it is likely to
die out soon in English, along with "stick" and "guts".

Verbs also tend to change quite quickly, so "push", "turn", "wipe" and
"stab" appear to be heading for the lexicographer's chopping block.

Again, the model cannot predict what words may change to; those
linguistic changes are according to Professor Pagel "anybody's guess".

High fidelity

"We think some of these words are as ancient as 40,000 years old. The
sound used to make those words would have been used by all speakers of
the Indo-European languages throughout history," Professor Pagel said.

"Here's a sound that has been connected to a meaning - and it's a
mostly arbitrary connection - yet that sound has persisted for those
tens of thousands of years."

The work casts an interesting light on the connection between concepts
and language in the human brain, and provides an insight into the
evolution of a dynamic set of words.

"If you've ever played 'Chinese whispers', what comes out the end is
usually gibberish, and more or less when we speak to each other we're
playing this massive game of Chinese whispers. Yet our language can
somehow retain its fidelity."

Story from BBC NEWS:


Footprints of Homo erectus suggest modern gait

Footprints of Homo erectus suggest modern gait
By John Noble Wilford
Thursday, February 26, 2009

Footprints uncovered in Kenya show that as early as 1.5 million years
ago an ancestral species, almost certainly Homo erectus, had already
evolved the feet and walking gait of modern humans.

An international team of scientists, in a report published Friday in
the journal Science, wrote that the well-defined prints in an eroding
bluff east of Lake Turkana "provided the oldest evidence of an
essentially modern humanlike foot anatomy" and added to the picture of
Homo erectus as the prehumans who took long evolutionary strides -
figuratively and, now it seems, also literally.

Where the individuals who made the tracks were going, or why, is
beyond knowing by the cleverest scientist. The variability of the
separation between some steps, researchers said, suggests that they
were picking their way over an uneven surface, muddy enough for
leaving a mark as an unintended message from an extinct species for
the contemplation of its descendants.

Until now, no footprint trails had ever been associated with early
members of our long-legged genus Homo. Preserved ancient footprints of
any kind, sometimes called "fossilized behavior," are rare indeed.

The only earlier prints of a protohuman species were found in 1978 at
Laetoli, in Tanzania. Dated at 3.7 million years, they were made by
Australopithecus afarensis, the diminutive species to which the famous
Lucy skeleton belonged. The prints showed that the species already
walked upright, but its short legs and long arms and its feet were in
many ways apelike.

Studying the more than a dozen erectus prints, scientists determined
that the individuals had heels, insteps and toes almost identical to
humans, and that they walked with a long stride similar to human

The researchers who made the discovery, as well as independent
specialists in human origins, said the prints helped explain fossil
and archaeological evidence that erectus had adapted the ability for
long-distance walking and running. Erectus skeletons from East Asia
revealed that the species, or a branch of it, had migrated out of
Africa as early as 1.8 million years ago.

The lead author of the journal report was Matthew Bennett, a dean at
Bournemouth University in England, who analyzed the prints with a new
laser technology for digitizing their precise depths and contours. The
tracks were excavated over the last three years by paleontologists and
students directed by John Harris of Rutgers University in
collaboration with the National Museums of Kenya.

Daniel Lieberman, a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard
who studies the evolution of human locomotion but was not a member of
the research group, said the prints established what experts had
suspected for some time. Erectus, he said, "probably looked much like
us, both walking and running over long distances."

Although the discoverers were cautious in attributing the prints to
Homo erectus, Lieberman and other experts said in interviews that it
was highly unlikely they could have been made by other known hominid

"The prints are what you would expect from the erectus skeleton we
have," said Leslie Aiello, president of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for
Anthropological Research, which supported the research. "We are seeing
erectus in motion," she added.

William Junger, a paleoanthropologist at Stony Brook University in New
York, said the footprints were further evidence that erectus had
"undergone a major structural change in body plan, and it's much like
our own."

One obvious exception: the erectus brain, though advanced from
previous ancestors, was still well below the size of the Homo sapiens

No erectus foot bones have yet been found anywhere, but other well-
preserved skeletons showed the species to be taller, less robust than
earlier hominids.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

DNA sheds light on mysterious Okhotsk people

DNA sheds light on mysterious Okhotsk people



Scholars using DNA testing hope to unravel age-old mysteries
surrounding the Okhotsk people, who suddenly disappeared around the
10th century in northern parts of Hokkaido.

And their research could shatter theories on the evolution of the
indigenous Ainu people.

The Okhotsk culture is believed to have originated on Sakhalin and
spread south to northern Hokkaido around the fifth century, when Japan
was in the kofun period of tumulus mounds.

The culture eventually spread to eastern Hokkaido and reached the
Chishima archipelago, before disappearing in the 10th century.

Researchers in such various fields as archaeology, history and
ethnology have tried to figure out just who the Okhotsk people were.

Some scholars believe the Okhotsk people were the northern race
referred to as Ashihase in the ancient chronicle Nihon Shoki, compiled
in the eighth century.

Studies have also led researchers to small ethnic groups scattered
around Sakhalin, Siberia and the islands in the northern parts beyond

Still, no definitive answer has been found.

However, Ryuichi Masuda, an associate professor of molecular
phylogenetics at Hokkaido University, and Takehiro Sato, a graduate
student, have shed more light on the Okhotsk people.

They extracted DNA samples from 37 human remains that were discovered
from ruins of the Okhotsk culture and kept at Hokkaido University
Museum. Analyses of the characteristics of the mitochondrial DNA led
Masuda and Sato to conclude that the Okhotsk people are closest to the
Nivkhis, who now live in northern Sakhalin and near the mouth of the
Amur river in Siberia.

The two also concluded that the Okhotsk people shared a common
ancestor with the Ulchis, who live downstream of the Amur river.

The Nivkhis and Ulchis are small ethnic groups with only a few
thousand survivors remaining.

Little is known about the Okhotsk people, who lived along the coast
and caught fish and whales while raising dogs and pigs.

But studies of the Okhotsk could also help scholars trace the
evolution of the Ainu.

Rice cultivation did not spread in Hokkaido even during the Yayoi
Pottery Culture (300 B.C.-A.D. 300). But a unique culture developed,
described as a procession beginning with a Jomon Pottery Culture,
followed by a Later Jomon Pottery Culture and a Satsumon Pottery

Although the Ainu are believed to have inherited aspects of Hokkaido
culture, they also have cultural factors not found in the Jomon
strain, for example their ceremonies involving bears.

Moreover, scholars have said that similar habits with bears were found
in the Okhotsk culture.

Masuda and his associates have confirmed that some Okhotsk people had
genetic types similar to those of the Ainu, but these types were not
found among the Jomon strain.

Tetsuya Amano, an archaeology professor at Hokkaido University,
believes the analytic results opened new doors.

"It has now become clear that the Ainu are not simply the direct
descendants of the Jomon people, but emerged after going through a
very complicated process," Amano said.

So if the closest people to the Okhotsk were the Nivkhis, what kind of
people are they?

According to Hidetoshi Shiraishi, an associate professor of
linguistics at Sapporo Gakuin University, the Nivkhi language is
independent in that it is not structurally related to other languages
in the vicinity. The origins of the Nivkhi people are also unclear.

While the Nivkhis are believed to have navigated sail boats and led a
life centered on fishing, their unique culture has been encroached
upon in recent years with gradual integration into Russian culture.

"There has been a number of waves of immigrants to Japan, such as the
arrival of the Yayoi people, but the southern advance by the Okhotsk
people is likely the most recent of those waves," said Naruya Saito, a
professor of population genetics at the National Institute of

However, scholars still do not know what brought those Okhotsk people
to Hokkaido.

Hiroshi Ushiro, a curator specializing in archaeology at the
Historical Museum of Hokkaido, said climate change, or more
specifically global warming, may have enabled the Okhotsk people to
enter Hokkaido.

The latter part of the kofun period when the Okhotsk culture reached
northern Hokkaido was relatively warm. Sea levels were about 1 meter
higher than they are now.

In the early part of the Heian Period (794-1185), when the culture
spread across Hokkaido, the average annual temperatures were about 2
to 3 degrees higher than they are today.

At that time, on the opposite side of the Eurasia continent, another
northern people, the vikings, increased their population due to the
warmer weather. The vikings ventured out to sea, conquered various
lands in Europe and spread their reach to as far away as Greenland.

A similar tale of cultural expansion may have taken place around the
same time in the northern parts of the Japanese archipelago.(IHT/
Asahi: February 24,2009)


Monday, February 23, 2009

Hi-tech research shows Neolithic axes have travelled from the Alps

From a local paper (The Echo) of Hampshire, Great Britain.

Hi-tech research shows Neolithic axes have travelled from the Alps

4:45pm Friday 20th February 2009

IT’S a mystery that could shed light on life in Hampshire 6,000 years

Four Stone Age axes, dating from a time when people had stopped
hunting woolly mammoths and sabretoothed tigers and turned to farming,
are giving clues to the origins of settled human life in the county.

They were found at Hill Head and Titchfield, near Fareham, and at
Beaulieu, in the New Forest, and Bartonon- Sea.

The tools, which are now in Winchester City Council’s collection, have
been analysed and found to originate in the north Italian Alps from
around 4,000BC. They had been carried for many miles before they were
lost in Hampshire. But no-one knows why or how they got here.

Helen Rees, Winchester’s curator of archaeology, said their origins
were a mystery.

“There was probably a movement of people and the axes were brought in
by settlers or they may have been traded,”

The research is part of Project JADE, a three-year, one-million-euro
programme, which is funded by the French Government.

The analysis, undertaken at the British Museum, measured the electro-
magnetic radiation in the axes.

The results can then be compared with those for rocks from known

In 2003, extraction sites for the distinctive and beautiful green
stone, known as jadeite, were discovered high up in the North Italian
Alps by the pioneering archaeologists, Pierre and Anne-Marie

The Hampshire axes were found to be from this source and so they had
travelled many miles.

The axes date from the Neolithic period, a time of great change that
saw the first farmers arrive in Britain from north-western Europe.

Researchers believe that jadeite axes were valued not just for their
practical uses but also for magical properties.

These were conferred by their origin in places where earth meets sky;
where this world meets that of the gods and spirits.

Comparisons with the continent show that the axes were old when they
arrived in Hampshire. Along with the seed corn needed to grow crops,
and domesticated animals, the settlers brought their treasured
heirlooms to remind them of the magical places far away and to bring
good luck in the new land.

Patricia Stallard, city council Cabinet member for culture and sport,
said: “Once again, science has put flesh on the bones of a fascinating
story about our ancestors and pointed up the value of Winchester
Museums’ reserve collections.”

Meanwhile, a fifth specimen, from Shawford Down, near Winchester,
which was recently donated to the museum, was pronounced by
researchers to be “probably not Alpine”. Further work is under way to
see if it might be British.

These Toes Were Made for Running

These Toes Were Made for Running
By Brandon Keim EmailFebruary 20, 2009 | 4:00:00

If you've ever wondered why humans don't have long, prehensile toes
that would turn our feet into extra hands, here's an answer: stubby
toes may be custom-made for running.

Biomechanical analysis shows that long toes require more energy and
generate more shock than short toes, making them one of many
adaptations that may have helped our savannah-dwelling ancestors chase
their prey.

"Longer toes require muscles to do more work, and exert stronger
forces to maintain stability, compared to shorter toes," said
University of Calgary anthropologist Campbell Rolian. "So long as we
were engaged in substantial amounts of running, natural selection
would favor individuals with shorter toes."

Most primates — including our closest relative, the chimpanzee — have
proportionately longer toes than humans. Our own are comparatively
dwarfish and two-dimensional, capable only of extending and flexing.
Most animals that run, however, also have extremely short toes. Some
species, such as cats and dogs, have paws composed almost entirely by
palms. This led Rolian's team to wonder if our foot's physiology could
be explained by running.

The importance of running to early Homo is, of course, conjectural.
But it does make sense: few other animals are capable of long-distance
running, and none can do so under a blazing sun. (Wolves and hyenas,
for example, require cold weather or nightfall for long-distance
hunting; otherwise they overheat.) Endurance running might have set
early humans apart from the pack.

According to study co-author and Harvard University anthropologist
Daniel Lieberman, many modern anatomical features make sense in the
context of savannah marathons. Achilles tendons act as springs to
store energy. Our hind limbs have extra-large joints. Our buttocks
muscles are perfect for stabilization, as are regions of the brain
uniquely sensitive to the physical pitching generated by the motion of

Toes may belong to this class of adaptations.

"Humans are well-adapted for endurance running. That's much of what
makes the human body what it is," said Lieberman. "We're actually
terrible sprinters, but the world's best long-distance runners."

The long-runner hypothesis is not universally accepted. "Walking and
running use the same body parts," said University of Wisconsin
paleoanthropologist John Hawks, who was not involved in the study.
"It's hard to argue that these are specifically crafted for running" —
and, to be even more specific, for long-distance running.

However, Rolian's study, published recently in the Journal of
Experimental Biology, makes at least a plausible case for the
importance of toes for running. During the moment of propulsion, when
one foot is in the air and the other is on the ground, between one-
half and three-quarters of a body's weight falls squarely on the

"When you're walking, before you push off to start the next step, your
other foot has already hit the ground. You've transferred some of your
body weight," said Rolian. "Your toes have to do much more work in
running, to push you."

When his team analyzed force exerted by fifteen test subjects running
and walking on a pressure-sensitive surface, they found that
increasing toe length by just 20 percent produced a doubling of motor
force. This can be explained in terms known conversationally known
from the action of a see-saw: levering force is magnified by the
distance between pressure and a fulcrum.

Rolian also observed that longer toes require an additional energy
investment when "braking," or using them to guide the forward-falling
motion that underlies both running and walking.

The additional work required by long toes, and a resulting increase in
muscle stress and damage, likely made them a victim of natural
selection. The fossil record, though spotty, provides a fitting
narrative: the toes of great apes are longer than those of
Australopithecus — the first bipedal hominid — which in turn are
longer than the toes of Homo, the genus to which modern humans

Hawks notes that long-distance running is now extremely rare, and
"where it exists, it is supported by very sophisticated cultural
adaptations, including tracking, water storage and staged transport of
meat back to home bases. There is presently little or no evidence for
these cultural adaptations in early Homo."

But Lieberman points out that early Homo and its descendants clearly
ate large game, though the projectile technologies ostensibly
necessary to slay them were invented just several thousand years ago.

"How did our ancestors, those weak little primates, kill big animals?
The answer is that we chased them. We made them gallop. They can't
pant and gallop at the same time," said Lieberman. "We can run down a
gazelle not through speed, but through endurance."

Of course, in the modern world of grocery stores and restaurants, long-
distance running is a recreational activity, and hard-soled shoes
absorb much of the shock felt by a bare foot. Freed from ancient
evolutionary pressures, what will happen to our feet?

It's too soon to tell, and nothing at all may happen, but "that's
generally a question you could ask about many features of the human
anatomy," said Rolian. Because it isn't required to push off, he said,
"There's talk about whether the pinkie toe is eventually going to

Citation: "Walking, running and the evolution of short toes in
humans." By Campbell Rolian, Daniel E. Lieberman, Joseph Hamill, John
W. Scott and William Werbel. Journal of Experimental Biology, Vol.
212, Issue 5. March 1, 2009.

First published online February 13, 2009
Journal of Experimental Biology 212, 713-721 (2009)
Published by The Company of Biologists 2009
doi: 10.1242/jeb.019885
This Article
Right arrow Figures Only
Right arrow Full Text
Right arrow Full Text (PDF)
Right arrow Alert me when this article is cited
Right arrow Alert me if a correction is posted
Right arrow Email this article to a friend
Right arrow Similar articles in this journal
Right arrow Similar articles in PubMed
Right arrow Alert me to new issues of the journal
Right arrow Download to citation manager
Right arrow reprints & permissions
Google Scholar
Right arrow Articles by Rolian, C.
Right arrow Articles by Werbel, W.
Right arrow PubMed Citation
Right arrow Articles by Rolian, C.
Right arrow Articles by Werbel, W.

Walking, running and the evolution of short toes in humans

Campbell Rolian1,*,{dagger}, Daniel E. Lieberman1, Joseph Hamill2,
John W. Scott3 and William Werbel1

1 Department of Anthropology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138,
2 Department of Kinesiology, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA
01003, USA
3 School of Medicine, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN 37232, USA

{dagger} Author for correspondence (e-mail:

Accepted 25 November 2008

The phalangeal portion of the forefoot is extremely short relative to
body mass in humans. This derived pedal proportion is thought to have
evolved in the context of committed bipedalism, but the benefits of
shorter toes for walking and/or running have not been tested
previously. Here, we propose a biomechanical model of toe function in
bipedal locomotion that suggests that shorter pedal phalanges improve
locomotor performance by decreasing digital flexor force production
and mechanical work, which might ultimately reduce the metabolic cost
of flexor force production during bipedal locomotion. We tested this
model using kinematic, force and plantar pressure data collected from
a human sample representing normal variation in toe length (N=25). The
effect of toe length on peak digital flexor forces, impulses and work
outputs was evaluated during barefoot walking and running using
partial correlations and multiple regression analysis, controlling for
the effects of body mass, whole-foot and phalangeal contact times and
toe-out angle. Our results suggest that there is no significant
increase in digital flexor output associated with longer toes in
walking. In running, however, multiple regression analyses based on
the sample suggest that increasing average relative toe length by as
little as 20% doubles peak digital flexor impulses and mechanical
work, probably also increasing the metabolic cost of generating these
forces. The increased mechanical cost associated with long toes in
running suggests that modern human forefoot proportions might have
been selected for in the context of the evolution of endurance running.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Thoughts on neanderthal Cloning By Bob Clark

> Regenerating a Mammoth for $10 Million.
> Published: November 19, 2008
> Scientists are talking for the first time about the old idea of
> resurrecting extinct species as if this staple of science fiction is a
> realistic possibility, saying that a livingmammothcould perhaps be
> regenerated for as little as $10 million.
> The same technology could be applied to any other extinct species from
> which one can obtain hair, horn, hooves, fur or feathers, and which
> went extinct within the last 60,000 years, the effective age limit for
> DNA.
> ...
> "The full genome of the Neanderthal, an ancient human species probably
> driven to extinction by the first modern humans that entered Europe
> some 45,000 years ago, is expected to be recovered shortly. If the mammoth can be resurrected, the same would be technically possible for
> Neanderthals.
> "But the process of genetically engineering a human genome into the
> Neanderthal version would probably raise many objections, as would
> several other aspects of such a project. “Catholic teaching opposes
> all human cloning, and all production of human beings in the
> laboratory, so I do not see how any of this could be ethically
> acceptable in humans,” said Richard Doerflinger, an official with the
> United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
> "Dr. Church said there might be an alternative approach that would
> “alarm a minimal number of people.” The workaround would be to modify
> not a human genome but that of the chimpanzee, which is some 98
> percent similar to that of people. The chimp’s genome would be
> progressively modified until close enough to that of Neanderthals, and
> the embryo brought to term in a chimpanzee.
> “The big issue would be whether enough people felt that a chimp-
> Neanderthal hybrid would be acceptable, and that would be broadly
> discussed before anyone started to work on it,” Dr. Church said."

> Though Neanderthals were undoubtedly thinking creatures, the ethical
> questions about cloning humans might be muted somewhat by recent
> studies that suggest that Neanderthals were genetically distinct from
> modern humans:

> Neandertals Not among Our Ancestors, Study Suggests.
> By Sarah Graham
> May 14, 2003 in Archaeology & Paleontology
> [abstract]

> For info on the capabilities of the Neanderthals see:

> Once We Were Not Alone.
> by Ian Tattersall
> Paintings by Jay H. Matternes
> Scientific American, January 2000
> [free full text]

> Another reasoning creature to interact with might provide us clues
> about how to communicate with other intelligent species in the SETI
> search.

This NY Times article reports on the further decoding of the
Neanderthal genome:

Scientists in Germany Draft Neanderthal Genome.
Published: February 12, 2009
"Possessing the Neanderthal genome raises the possibility of bringing
Neanderthals back to life. Dr. George Church, a leading genome
researcher at the Harvard Medical School, said Thursday that a
Neanderthal could be brought to life with present technology for about
$30 million."
"When the full Neanderthal genome is in hand, could it be made to
produce the living creature its information specifies? Ethical
considerations aside, Dr. Pääbo said, Neanderthals could not be
generated with existing technology. Dr. Church of Harvard disagreed.
He said he would start with the human genome, which is highly similar
to that of Neanderthals, and change the few DNA units required to
convert it into the Neanderthal version.
"This could be done, he said, by splitting the human genome into
30,000 chunks about 100,000 DNA units in length. Each chunk would be
inserted into bacteria and converted to the Neanderthal equivalent by
changing the few DNA units in which the two species differ. The
changed lengths of DNA would then be reassembled into a full
Neanderthal genome. To avoid ethical problems, this genome would be
inserted not into a human cell but into a chimpanzee cell.
"Dr. Church acknowledged that ethical views on such an experiment
would vary widely. But bringing a Neanderthal to birth, he said, would
satisfy the human desire to communicate with other intelligences."

Perhaps Dr. Pääbo should recall that famous statement of Arthur C.

"When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is
possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something
is impossible, he is very probably wrong."

I also like the statement Dr. Church makes in the article that echoes
what I said before that bringing back the Neanderthal could give us
some understanding about communicating with other intelligences.

Here's another NY Times article that's in favor of the idea:

Why Not Bring a Neanderthal to Life?
By John Tierney
February 13, 2009, 11:30 am
"So why not do it? Why not give Harvard’s George Church the money he
says could be used to resurrect a Neanderthal from DNA?
"I’m bracing for a long list of objections from the world’s self-
appointed keepers of bioethics, who must see this new Neanderthal
issue as a research bonanza. Think of the conferences to plan, the
books to publish, the donors to alarm! I can imagine an anti-
Neanderthal alliance between the religious right and the religious
left, like James Dobson and Jeremy Rifkin — what I like to call the
holier-than-thou coalition opposed to new biological technologies.
"But I’m afraid I can’t see the problem. If we discovered a small band
of Neanderthals hidden somewhere, we’d do everything to keep them
alive, just as we try to keep alive so many other endangered
populations of humans and animals — including man-biting mosquitoes
and man-eating polar bears. We’ve also spent lots of money
reintroducing animals into ecosystems from which they had vanished.
Shouldn’t be at least as solicitous to our fellow hominids?"

The ethical problems of bringing back a Neanderthal are explored in a
classic Isaac Asimov story, though in this case by time travel, "The
Ugly Little Boy":

The Ugly Little Boy.

Bob Clark

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Oldest bifacial hand axe 1.83 Ma found in Malaysia


Major cache of Pleistocene ice age fossils unearthed in L.A. Options

February 18, 2009

Workers excavating an underground garage on the site of an old May Co.
parking structure in Los Angeles' Hancock Park got more than just a
couple hundred new parking spaces. They found the largest known cache
of fossils from the last ice age, an assemblage that has flabbergasted

Researchers from the George C. Page Museum at the La Brea tar pits
have barely begun extracting the fossils from the sandy, tarry matrix
of soil, but they expect the find to double the size of the museum's
collection from the period, already the largest in the world.

Among their finds, to be formally announced today, is the nearly
intact skeleton of a Columbian mammoth -- named Zed by researchers --
a prize discovery because only bits and pieces of mammoths had
previously been found in the tar pits.

But researchers are perhaps even more excited about finding smaller
fossils of tree trunks, turtles, snails, clams, millipedes, fish,
gophers and even mats of oak leaves. In the early 1900s, the first
excavators at La Brea threw out similar items in their haste to find
prized animal bones, and crucial information about the period was

"This gives us the opportunity to get a detailed picture of what life
was like 10,000 to 40,000 years ago" in the Los Angeles Basin, said
John Harris, chief curator at the Page. The find will make the museum
"the major library of life in the Pleistocene ice age," he said.

Because of its need for haste, the team also is pioneering a new
technique for extracting the fossils. Most paleontologists spend days
to weeks carefully sifting through the soil at the site of a dig. In
this case, however, huge chunks of soil from the site have been
removed intact and now sit in large wooden crates on the museum's back
lot. The 23 crates -- ranging in size from that of a desk to that of a
small delivery truck -- are responsible for the excavation's informal
name, Project 23.

The site of the old two-story parking garage, which was used by the
now-defunct May Co. department store, is now owned by the Page's
neighboring museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. LACMA had
razed the building to construct an underground parking garage that
would restore parkland above the structure.

The entire Rancho La Brea area at Hancock Park is a paleontological
treasure chest. Petroleum from the once-massive underground oil fields
oozed to the surface over the millennia, forming bogs that trapped and
killed unsuspecting animals and then preserved their skeletons. It is
now a protected site, although dispensation was granted to build the
new garage.

Because of the historic nature of the area, the work had to be
overseen by a salvage archaeologist. In this case, the work fell to
Robin Turner, founder of ArchaeoPaleo Resource Management Inc. of
Culver City, which previously had overseen work on other sites at or
near the tar pits. Her group hit pay dirt when the excavation got
about 10 feet below the surface.

"I knew we would find fossils . . . but I never expected to find so
many deposits," Turner said. "There was an absolutely remarkable
quantity and quality."

There were 16 separate deposits on the site -- an amount that, by her
estimate, would have taken 20 years to excavate conventionally. But
with LACMA officials prodding her "to get those things out of our way"
so they could build their garage, she had to find another way.

Her solution was a process similar to that used to move large living
trees. Carefully identifying the edges of each deposit, her team dug
trenches around and underneath them, isolating the deposits on dirt
pedestals. After wrapping heavy plastic around the deposits, workers
built wooden crates similar to tree boxes and lifted them out
individually with a heavy crane. The biggest one weighed 123,000

"We designed a crate so that we could take out the entire deposit
without disturbing it so that, at a later date, you could do a proper
excavation as you would if it were still in the ground," she said.

In 3 1/2 months, working seven days a week, she and her colleagues
removed the entire collection two years ago and delivered them to the
museum. For some of the deposits, she said, they had to wear oxygen
tanks with full gas masks because of unusually high levels of hydrogen
sulfide escaping from the soil.

The only exceptions to the crating process were the mammoth named Zed
and a horse skull. Because they were separate from the other
assemblages, they were partially excavated and encased in plastic
casts for cleaning in the museum -- the conventional technique for
recovering fossils.

Curators are excited about Zed because he appears to be about 80%
complete, missing only one rear leg, a vertebra and the top of his
skull, which was shaved off by excavation equipment.

Curators collected 34 mammoths in the initial excavations of the La
Brea tar pits from 1906 to 1914. "But they were all disarticulated
bones, jumbled together," said paleontologist Christopher A. Shaw,
collections manager at the Page. Mammoths on display at the museum are
assembled from the bones of many animals.

Zed's tusks also are nearly intact -- another rarity since they are
made of dentin, which is much more fragile than bones.

Zed's skeleton is now being cleaned in the museum's "fish bowl"
preparation room, and the team of paleontologists and volunteers has
so far completed only his jawbone and some vertebrae. All researchers
know so far is that he stood about 10 feet tall at the hip and was 47
to 49 years old. Mammoths normally lived to about 60, so Zed died

Curators have found three broken ribs that were healed before his
death. He probably got them from fighting with other male mammoths,
"or he was just clumsy as hell," said Shelley M. Cox, who is
supervising the cleaning.

The team also has begun digging through the largest crate but has so
far excavated only an area about 6 feet by 4 feet and about 2 1/2 feet
deep. From that small area, they have so far removed a complete saber-
tooth cat skeleton, six dire-wolf skulls and bones from two other
saber-tooth cats, a giant ground sloth, and a North American lion. The
tar has yielded more than 700 individual plant and animal specimens,
400 of which have been cataloged, Shaw said.

The team doesn't know the ages of the deposits yet. All previous
specimens from Hancock Park date from 10,000 to 40,000 years ago, and
there is no reason to suspect these will be any different, but each
must be radiocarbon-dated.

Individual fossil deposits in the area generally cover a time span of
about 2,000 years, Harris said, and deposits that are just a few feet
apart can be separated in time by thousands to tens of thousands of
years. "Hopefully, the 16 [new] deposits will have 16 different ages,"
Shaw said.

Sinkhole to America's Ancient Past

Sinkhole Holds 12,000-year-old Clues to Early Americans
Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
February 18, 2009

Divers exploring a southern Florida sinkhole have uncovered clues to
what life was like for some of America's first residents.

Led by University of Miami professor John Gifford, underwater
archaeologists are exploring Little Salt Spring, 12 miles (19
kilometers) south of Sarasota.

Earlier this year, students working about 30 feet (9 meters) below the
surface found the remains of a gourd that probably was used as a
canteen by an ancient hunter about 8,000 or 9,000 years ago, according
to Gifford.

Archaeologists have been recovering primitive relics from the spring
since 1977, when divers found the remains of a large, now extinct
tortoise and a sharpened stake that may have been used by a hungry
hunter to kill the animal 12,000 years ago.

In 1986, Gifford and his colleagues recovered a skull with brain
tissue from what he thinks was an ancient burial in shallow water near
the spring. He continues to work with DNA samples to determine the
date of the find.

Gifford and other archaeologists found more from the tortoise this
past July, along with the slaughtered remains of a giant ground sloth.

The discovery of the sloth's bones, Gifford said, could indicate that
Little Salt Spring was a sort of ancient butcher shop where hunters
often killed and their prey and prepared meat when this was dry land.

These remains come from the earliest known period of human activity in
the Western Hemisphere, said Gifford, who has received funding for his
work from the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and
Exploration. (National Geographic News is owned by the National
Geographic Society.)

"This is a warehouse of environmental, natural, historical, and
archaeological remains in a very, very well preserved environment,"
said Roger Smith, Florida's state underwater archaeologist.

"That's why it's a world-class site. I would call it a portal back
into time."

(Watch a video about Ice Age people in Florida.)

The Sinkhole State

Sinkholes in Florida form when water from underground aquifers
dissolves the porous limestone bedrock and pushes toward the surface.
Eventually, the ground collapses into the water and an hourglass-
shaped sinkhole is formed.

Florida has more springs than any other state in the U.S. Some are
quite large, while others—such as Little Salt Spring—are smaller, at
243 feet (74 meters) wide. Because the spring water comes from
underground, it stays at a constant temperature of 75 degrees
Fahrenheit (24 degrees Celsius).

When Little Salt Spring was formed during the last Ice Age, sea level
was lower and what is now the Florida peninsula was much wider.
Sources of freshwater were scarce. Ancient Native Americans came to
the sinkhole to drink the water and perhaps find a meal.

"Florida was much drier than it is today," Gifford said. "Essentially,
[Little Salt Spring] was an oasis." Gifford and his divers worked last
summer on a ledge about 90 feet (27 meters) below the surface where
the stake and tortoise remains were found.

Ancient Environment

Gifford's divers will return to lower depths of Little Salt Spring
soon, but will wait until their recent finds have been analyzed. They
hope to eventually uncover evidence of campfires on the ledge. And
because Little Salt Spring's waters contain little or no oxygen that
would support bacteria that eats away at artifacts, it's possible
they'll find near pristine items.

"There may be lots of stuff—basketry, woven fabrics, wooden implements—
that you wouldn't otherwise find in an archaeological context," said
Bruce Smith, curator of North American Archaeology at the National
Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

Finding fragile wooden artifacts would "open a new window" of
understanding how early Native Americans lived, Smith said. "You can
really get excited by it."

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Kris's Archaeology Blog

Kris's Archaeology Blog

By K. Kris Hirst,
Why 50,000 bp is a "Crazy Date" for Topper
Saturday February 14, 2009

Later this year, the first peer-reviewed report on the geostratigraphy
of the Topper site in South Carolina will be published in the Journal
of Archaeological Science. I got to look at the paper, and it allows a
solid look at the site stratigraphy, and raises a bunch of questions.

Read all about on the blog:


A taste for meat

A taste for meat

The human ancestor ventured out from the trees to the savannah for food

One of the distant relatives of man probably developed a taste for meat much earlier than thought, according to new research.
Australopithecus africanus, a hominid that lived about three million years ago, was believed to have eaten a diet much like modern chimpanzees. They forage mostly in wooded areas for fruits and plant material from trees and bushes.

Later hominids, on the other hand, looked for food in more open environments such as grasslands and ate the meat of animals they killed with stone tools.

But after studying the fossilised teeth of Australopithecus, Matt Sponheimer and Julia Lee-Thorp from the University of Cape Town now think its diet may have been much more diverse - small mammals that could be caught without tools may even have been on the menu.

Isotopic analysis

Analysing teeth from Australopithecus africanus revealed a diverse diet
The teeth were subjected to isotopic analysis. This technique relies on the knowledge that different types - isotopes - of a particular atom exist in the environment in a specific ratio to each other.

For example, grasses and sedges display a different isotopic ratio of carbon atoms to that found in the plants typical of woodland areas, like herbs. And since animals absorb some of the carbon they eat into their teeth, a study of the isotopic ratio in the enamel should say something about the environment in which the animals lived.

In the case of Australopithecus, the isotopic content of its teeth is consistent with a diet that included both the grasses and sedges found on open savannahs and the woodland plants the creature was supposed to have dined on exclusively.

Common assumtpions

A pattern of scratching and pitting on the creature's molars also hinted at meat being a likely source of the unexpected isotopic ratios.

The scientists say the common assumption that our ancestors in the genus Homo developed their large brains after they began eating the nutrient- and energy-rich animal foods necessary to fuel the larger brains may now need reappraisal.

"Our results raise the possibility... that dietary quality improved [through the consumption of animal foods] before the development of Homo and stone tools about 2.5 million years ago," writes Matt Sponheimer - also of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, USA - in the journal Science.


'First Americans were Australian'

'First Americans were Australian'

This is the face of the first known American, Lucia

The first Americans were descended from Australian aborigines, according to evidence in a new BBC documentary.

The skulls suggest faces like those of Australian aborigines
The programme, Ancient Voices, shows that the dimensions of prehistoric skulls found in Brazil match those of the aboriginal peoples of Australia and Melanesia. Other evidence suggests that these first Americans were later massacred by invaders from Asia.

Until now, native Americans were believed to have descended from Asian ancestors who arrived over a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska and then migrated across the whole of north and south America. The land bridge was formed 11,000 years ago during the ice age, when sea level dropped.

How rock art suggests a violent end for the "Australian" Americans
However, the new evidence shows that these people did not arrive in an empty wilderness. Stone tools and charcoal from the site in Brazil show evidence of human habitation as long ago as 50,000 years.

The site is at Serra Da Capivara in remote northeast Brazil. This area is now inhabited by the descendants of European settlers and African slaves who arrived just 500 years ago.

But cave paintings found here provided the first clue to the existence of a much older people.

The costumes and rituals shown in rock art survived in Terra del Fuego

Images of giant armadillos, which died out before the last ice age, show the artists who drew them lived before even the natives who greeted the Europeans.

These Asian people have facial features described as mongoloid. However, skulls dug from a depth equivalent to 9,000 to 12,000 years ago are very different.

Walter Neves, an archaeologist from the University of Sao Paolo, has taken extensive skull measurements from dozens of skulls, including the oldest, a young woman who has been named Lucia.

"The measurements show that Lucia was anything but mongoloid," he says.

Walter Neves has measured hundreds of skulls

The next step was to reconstruct a face from Lucia's skull. First, a CAT scan of the skull was done, to allow an accurate working model to be made.

Then a forensic artist, Richard Neave from the University of Manchester, UK, created a face for Lucia. The result was surprising: "It has all the features of a negroid face," says Dr Neave.

Lucia's skull is 12,000 years old
The skull dimensions and facial features match most closely the native people of Australia and Melanesia. These people date back to about 60,000 years, and were themselves descended from the first humans, who left Africa about 100,000 years ago.

But how could the early Australians have travelled more than 13,500 kilometres (8,450 miles) at that time? The answer comes from more cave paintings, this time from the Kimberley, a region at the northern tip of Western Australia.

Here, Grahame Walsh, an expert on Australian rock art, found the oldest painting of a boat anywhere in the world. The style of the art means it is at least 17,000 years old, but it could be up to 50,000 years old.

And the crucial detail is the high prow of the boat. This would have been unnecessary for boats used in calm, inland waters. The design suggests it was used on the open ocean.

Fantastic voyage

Archaeologists speculate that such an incredible sea voyage, from Australia to Brazil, would not have been undertaken knowingly but by accident.

Just three years ago, five African fishermen were caught in a storm and a few weeks later were washed up on the shores of South America. Two of the fishermen died, but three made it alive.

Walter Neves says the negroid people disappear 7,000 years ago
But if the first Americans had drifted from Australia, where are their descendants now? Again, the skulls suggest an answer.

The shape of the skulls changes between 9,000 and 7,000 years ago from being exclusively negroid to exclusively mongoloid. Combined with rock art evidence of increasing violence at this time, it appears that the mongoloid people from the north invaded and wiped out the original Americans.

Fuegean Cristina Calderon may be one of the few surviving descendants of the first Americans
The only evidence of any survivors comes from Terra del Fuego, the islands at the remotest southern tip of South America.

The pre-European Fuegeans, who lived stone age-style lives until this century, show hybrid skull features which could have resulted from intermarrying between mongoloid and negroid peoples. Their rituals and traditions also bear some resemblance to the ancient rock art in Brazil.

The identity of the first Americans is an emotive and controversial question. But the evidence from Brazil, and a handful of people who still live at the very tip of South America, suggests that the Americas have been home to a greater diversity of humans than previously thought - and for much longer.

Ancient Voices: The hunt for the first Americans will be shown on BBC Two at 2130 BST on Wednesday 1 September.

Neanderthals 'mated with modern humans'

Neanderthals 'mated with modern humans'

A hybrid skeleton showing features of both Neanderthal and early modern humans has been discovered, challenging the theory that our ancestors drove Neanderthals to extinction.
The skeleton of a young boy was found in Portugal.

Scientists say it shows for the first time that Neanderthals, who became extinct tens of thousands of years ago, mated with early members of our own species.

The scientists believe that the offspring of the interbreeding could be ancestors of modern man.

"This skeleton, which has some characteristics of Neanderthals and others of early modern humans, demonstrates that early modern humans and Neanderthals are not all that different. They intermixed, interbred and produced offspring," said Erik Trinkaus of Washington University.

But Joao Zilhao of the Portuguese Archaeological Institute said more research was needed to back up the controversial theory.

And Dr Robert Foley of Cambridge University told the BBC: "The fossil evidence as we currently understand it doesn't show the signs of hybrids between Neanderthals and modern humans, so it would be a novel and unusual find."

Child skeleton found in rabbit hole

The skeleton, thought to be that of a four-year-old boy, was found when an archaeologist explored a rabbit hole near the coast north of Lisbon.

The child had been given a ritual burial, with red ochre and pierced shells.

He had the pronounced chin and teeth of modern humans, but his sturdy limbs were more characteristic of the Neanderthals.

The Neanderthals were a powerfully-built species who evolved to cope with the challenging climate of Ice Age Europe.

While their brains were bigger than our own, Neanderthals never developed the sophisticated culture and technology that became the hallmark of their modern human contemporaries.

'Out of Africa' theory challenged

Most anthropologists believe that modern humans evolved in Africa by about 100,000 years ago. They eventually spread across the world - the so-called "Out of Africa" theory.

By 20,000 years ago, the Neanderthals were extinct. But it was not known whether modern humans destroyed them, or whether their distinctive characteristics disappeared through interbreeding.

Dr Trinkaus says the Portuguese skeleton provides powerful evidence for the interbreeding theory.

"This find refutes strict replacement models of modern human origins - that early modern humans all emerged from Africa and wiped out the Neanderthal population," said Dr Trinkaus.

The scientists believe that raises the possibility that people alive today could have some genes inherited from Neanderthal ancestors.

"A major contribution"

Chris Stringer, an expert on Neanderthal man at the Museum of Natural History in London, said he expected the find to make a "major contribution" to the debate on how the Neanderthals died out.

The hybridisation theory has been difficult to prove because only fragments of skeletons have previously been found, Dr Stringer said.

"The Iberian peninsula is an area where there was a significant overlap in time and space between Neanderthal and modern man. They could have coexisted for as long as 10,000 years," he said.


Neanderthals were cannibals

Neanderthals were cannibals

This Neanderthal thigh bone was smashed open for its marrow

Gory evidence uncovered in France reveals that the early humans in the region ate one another.
Cheek muscles from children were filleted out, tendons were sliced and skulls were cracked to remove brains.

Sharp butchering marks made by flint tools
Commenting on the research published in the journal Science, anthropologist Juan Luis Arsuaga said: "To me this is, paradoxically, a very human behaviour that indicates a human mind. Only humans practice systematic cannibalism - this is the dark side of the human coin."

Excavations at the cave at Moula-Guercy, Ardeche, yielded 78 Neanderthal bones, from at least six individuals who lived 100,000 years ago. Remnants of two adults, two 15 or 16 year-olds, and two six or seven year-olds were dug up as well as nearly 400 pieces of animal bone.

Dr Tim White: We are quite convinced by the evidence
Careful study of tool marks and fractures on the remains shows that these Neanderthals were master butchers.

"If we conclude that the animal remains are the leftovers from a meal, we're obliged to expand that conclusion to include humans," said the research team leader Alban Defleur, at the University of the Mediterranean Marseille.

Skull fragments: hammered open to remove brains
All the skulls and limb bones were broken apart, presumably to remove brain or marrow. Only the hand and foot bones remained intact, which contain no marrow. Arm and leg tendons were cut, a necessary action if a limb is to be removed. Other cuts show that the thigh muscles were removed, and in at least one case the tongue was cut out.

There have been hints of Neanderthal cannibalism at other sites before but this is the by far the clearest evidence and the first in Europe.

No signs of gnawing were found on the bones, ruling out the possibility that the Neanderthals were eaten by wild animals. There were no signs of charring either suggesting the flesh was either eaten raw or cooked off the bone.

Alban Defleur excavating bones
It is not clear whether the individuals were eaten for survival when other food was scarce or as part of a social ritual. But the abundance of natural resources available at the site makes the survival scenario seem unlikely, according to Dr Defleur.

However, the archaeologists have also found no evidence that the bones were cut and broken as part of a burial ritual - the early human bones were thrown on to the cave floor alongside deer bones.

The new evidence might appear to be at odds with records of careful Neanderthal burials in which bodies were laid in the foetal position in semi-circular graves. But Professor Tim White, another team member from the University of California Berkeley believes that the variable treatment reveals a cultural complexity.

"When you see some Neanderthals practising intentional burial and others practising cannibalism, that is a clear indication of behaviour that is multidimensional - a pattern that mirrors the behaviour of more modern people," he said.

Ice Age star map discovered

Ice Age star map discovered

The star map gives insight into our ancestors' minds

By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse
A prehistoric map of the night sky has been discovered on the walls of the famous painted caves at Lascaux in central France.

It is a map of the prehistoric cosmos

Dr Michael Rappenglueck
The map, which is thought to date back 16,500 years, shows three bright stars known today as the Summer Triangle.

A map of the Pleiades star cluster has also been found among the Lascaux frescoes.

And another pattern of stars, drawn 14,000 years ago, has been identified in a cave in Spain.

According to German researcher Dr Michael Rappenglueck, of the University of Munich, the maps show that our ancestors were more sophisticated than many believe.

Scientific heritage

The Lascaux caves, with their spectacular drawings of bulls, horses and antelope, were painted 16,500 years ago.

The caves may have been a prehistoric planetarium where the stars were first charted

Discovered in 1940, the walls show the artistic talents of our distant ancestors. But the drawings may also demonstrate their scientific knowledge as well.

The caves could be a prehistoric planetarium in which humanity first charted the stars.

The sky map has been found in a region of the Lascaux caves known as the Shaft of the Dead Man.

Painted on to the wall of the shaft is a bull, a strange bird-man and a mysterious bird on a stick.

Summer triangle

According to Dr Rappenglueck, these outlines form a map of the sky with the eyes of the bull, birdman and bird representing the three prominent stars Vega, Deneb and Altair.

The ancient star map shows a bull, birdman and a bird on a stick

Together, these stars are popularly known as the Summer Triangle and are among the brightest objects that can be picked out high overhead during the middle months of the northern summer.

Around 17,000 years ago, this region of sky would never have set below the horizon and would have been especially prominent at the start of spring.

"It is a map of the prehistoric cosmos," Dr Rappenglueck told BBC News Online. "It was their sky, full of animals and spirit guides."

Seven sisters

But the sky map is not the only evidence that prehistoric man took a keen interest in the night sky. Nearer to the entrance of the Lascaux cave complex is a magnificent painting of a bull.

Cave drawings in Spain may also point to the stars

Hanging over its shoulder is what appears to be a map of the Pleiades, the cluster of stars sometimes called the Seven Sisters.

Inside the bull painting, there are also indications of spots that may be a representation of other stars found in that region of sky.

Today, this region forms part of the constellation of Taurus the bull, showing that mankind's identification of this part of the sky stretches back thousands of years.

Northern Crown

Dr Rappenglueck has also identified a star map painted on the walls of a cave in Spain 14,000 years ago.

The Cueva di El Castillo cave, in the mountains of Pico del Castillo, contains a region called the Frieze of Hands.

At the end of this remarkable section can be found a curved pattern of dots.

"Nobody paid much attention to it," said Dr Rappenglueck. "But, it is obviously a drawing of the constellation we call the Northern Crown. It is remarkable."

The archaeologists who have looked at Dr Rappengleuck's conclusions have so far agreed that they are reasonable and that he may have uncovered the earliest evidence of humanity's interest in the stars.


In the Beginning was the Vowel

In the Beginning was the Vowel

Pre-Neanderthal remains were found in northern Spain

Humans were able to talk 300,000 years ago, new research has shown.
Pre-Neanderthals who lived in northern Spain could utter basic vowel sounds, say researchers working at the Atapuerca archaeological site in Burgos Province.

They had voice boxes at an evolutionary stage between chimpanzees and modern humans.

It is the first time fossil evidence for this has been found, the Spanish daily La Razon said.

"Man could talk 300,000 years ago, albeit not in the way we do"

Ignacio Martinez

The findings are based on studies of a complete skull found in the Sima de los Huesos (Pit of Bones) in Atapuerca in 1992 among the remains of over 30 other people.

They were announced at a news conference by the co-director of the Atapuerca excavations, Juan Luis Arsuaga, and fellow palaeontologist Ignacio Martinez.

"For the first time, we can say that an anatomically intermediate situation between the chimpanzee and man existed on the planet - not only anatomical but also functional", said Martinez.

"That means that man could talk 300,000 years ago, albeit not in the way we do", he went on.

Spanish researchers say Homo heidelbergensis could talk

The now famous skull, Atapuerca 5, belongs to a member of the species Homo heidelbergensis, which some scientists believe was the last common ancestor of the Neanderthals and today's humans.


Homo heidelbergensis could pronounce some basic vowel sounds - "aa", "ee" and "oo" - but not well enough to hold any kind of conversation.The sounds would have been slow and slurred due to the dimensions of the mouth and pharynx, the Spanish researchers say.

For Arsuaga, the evidence of a semi-developed voice box reinforces the idea that "the evolution of human intelligence also occurred in a progressive manner" and not spontaneously, as many scientists have hitherto maintained.

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

'Oldest sculpture' found in Morocco

'Oldest sculpture' found in Morocco

By Paul Rincon
BBC Science

A 400,000-year-old stone object unearthed in Morocco could be the world's oldest attempt at sculpture.

The figurine was found 15 metres below ground
That is the claim of a prehistoric art specialist who says the ancient rock bears clear signs of modification by humans.

The object, which is around six centimetres in length, is shaped like a human figure, with grooves that suggest a neck, arms and legs. On its surface are flakes of a red substance that could be remnants of paint.

The object was found 15 metres below the eroded surface of a terrace on the north bank of the River Draa near the town of Tan-Tan. It was reportedly lying just a few centimetres away from stone handaxes in ground layers dating to the Middle Acheulian period, which lasted from 500,000 to 300,000 years ago.

Cultural controversy

The find is likely to further fuel a vociferous debate over the timing of humanity's discovery of symbolism. Hominids such as Homo heidelbergensis and Homo erectus, that were alive during the Acheulian period, are not thought to have been capable of the symbolic thought needed to create art.

Writing in the journal Current Anthropology, Robert Bednarik, president of the International Federation of Rock Art Organisations (IFRAO), suggests that the overall shape of the Tan-Tan object was fashioned by natural processes.

But he argues that conspicuous grooves on the surface of the stone, which appear to emphasise its humanlike appearance, are partially man-made. Mr Bednarik claims that some of these grooves were made by repeated battering with a stone tool to connect up natural depressions in the rock.

Handaxes were found close to the figurine
"What we've got is a piece of stone that is largely naturally shaped.

"It has some modifications, but they are more than modifications," Mr Bednarik told BBC News Online.

Mr Bednarik tried to replicate the markings on a similar piece of rock by hitting a stone flake with a "hammerstone" in the manner of a punch. He then compared the microscopic structure of the fractures with those of the Tan-Tan object.

Sceptic's view

However, Professor Stanley Ambrose of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, US, said he saw no evidence for tool marks and that, although the figure was evocative, it was most likely the result of "fortuitous natural weathering".

"[Mr Bednarik] has effectively presented all the information necessary to show this is a naturally weathered rock," Professor Ambrose told BBC News Online.

Professor Ambrose points to Mr Bednarik's observation that some rocks in the vicinity of the figure were weathered and even rounded from transport by water. Professor Ambrose believes that rocks and artefacts found at the site could have been disturbed by flowing water in the past.

Mr Bednarik also observes that flecks of a greasy substance containing iron and manganese on the surface of the stone could be red ochre, a substance used as paint by later humans.

"They [the specks] do not resemble corroded natural iron deposits, nor has any trace of this pigment been detected on any of the other objects I have examined from Tan-Tan," writes Mr Bednarik in his paper.

A 200,000-300,000-year-old stone object found at Berekhat Ram in Israel in 1986 has also been the subject of claims that it is a figurine. However, several other researchers later presented evidence to show that it was probably shaped by geological processes.

The Tan-Tan object was discovered in 1999, during a dig directed by Lutz Fiedler, the state archaeologist of Hesse in Germany.


'Oldest' prehistoric art unearthed

Are abstract markings on a piece of ochre ancient art?

By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse
The world's oldest example of abstract art, dating back more than 70,000 years, has been found in a cave in South Africa.

They may have been constructed with symbolic intent, the meaning of which is now unknown

Dr Christopher Henshilwood, State University of New York at Stony Brook
Scientists say the discovery shows that modern ways of thinking developed far earlier than we think.

The abstract art was found on two pieces of ochre in a cave on the southern Cape shore of the Indian Ocean.

Previously, the earliest evidence of abstract art came mainly in France from the Eurasian Palaeolithic period less than 35,000 years ago.

Complex motif

Dr Christopher Henshilwood, from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, says: "They may have been constructed with symbolic intent, the meaning of which is now unknown.

Dr Christopher Henshilwood believes the items are significant

"The engraving itself is quite a complex geometric pattern. There is a system to the patterns."

"We don't know what they mean, but they are symbols that I think could have been interpreted by those people as having meaning that would have been understood by others."

The engraved ochre pieces were recovered from Middle Stone Age layers at Blombos Cave, 290 kilometres (180 miles) east of Cape Town, and are at least 70,000 years old.

Dr Henshilwood says more than 8,000 other pieces of ochre were found in the cave, many of which had been rubbed smooth as if to make pigment powder.

Some say they could be just meaningless doodles?

Ochre, a form of iron ore, is frequently found in Stone Age deposits less than 100,000 years old. It may have been used as a body or decorative paint.
The researchers believe that the ochre was first scraped and ground to create flat surfaces. It was then marked with cross hatches and lines to create a complex motif.

The find pushes back by some 35,000 years the earliest time when biologically modern humans were known to have developed modern behaviour.

"The theory up until now has been that modern human behaviour started only around 40,000 years ago," says Dr Henshilwood.

"The whole of South Africa was occupied by a biologically modern people who had evolved about 150,000 years ago.

The research team excavate in Blombos Cave

"There is no doubt that the people in southern Africa were behaviourally modern 70,000 years ago."

'Just doodlings'

Scientists believe that these finds demonstrate that ochre use in the Middle Stone Age was not exclusively utilitarian and, arguably, the transmission and sharing of the meaning of the engravings relied on fully syntactical language.

While the markings are suggestive, not all scientists are prepared to classify them as a form of artistic expression and abstract thought.

Steve Kuhn of the University of Arizona says the finding is the result of some "very good work by some very serious researchers".

But he adds: "I'd be more comfortable if there were more of these engraved stones; if these alleged symbols were found many times in different places. It is possible they were just doodlings that really didn't mean anything."

Blombos Cave is 290 kilometres (180 miles) east of Cape Town

The research was funded by the US National Science Foundation and is published in the journal Science.

Evidence of earliest human burial

Evidence of earliest human burial

By Paul Rincon

Scientists claim they have found the oldest evidence of human creativity: a 350,000-year-old pink stone axe.

Enlarge image

The handaxe, which was discovered at an archaeological site in northern Spain, may represent the first funeral rite by human beings.

It suggests humans were capable of symbolic thought at a far earlier date than previously thought.

Spanish researchers found the axe among the fossilised bones of 27 ancient humans that were clumped together at the bottom of a 14-metre- (45 feet) deep pit inside a network of limestone caves at Atapuerca, near Burgos.

It is the only man-made implement found in the pit.

It may confirm the team's belief that other humans deposited bodies in the pit deliberately.

Special colour

Professor Eudald Carbonell, of the Rovira i Virgili University in Tarragona, Spain, and a key member of the team that unearthed the axe, was jubilant about the find.

"It's a great discovery. This is an interpretation, but in my opinion and the opinion of my team, the axe could be the first evidence of ritual behaviour and symbolism in a human species," Professor Carbonell said.


Scientists are trying to piece together the species relationships
"We conclude it could be from a funeral rite," he added.

The axe is skilfully crafted from quartzite rock, which is abundant in the region.

Handaxes of this type are usually used for butchering animal carcasses for their meat. But the researchers claim the striking colour is crucial to its importance.

"It's a very special colour," said Juan Luis Arsuaga, director of the Atapuerca excavation. "They would have needed to search it out. I think this colour had some significance for [these humans]," he added.

The human remains belong to the species Homo heidelbergensis, which dominated Europe around 600,000-200,000 years ago and is thought to have given rise to both the Neanderthals and modern humans (Homo sapiens).

But some researchers, such as Peter Andrews, of the Natural History Museum in London, have proposed that the skeletons were lying elsewhere in the caves and sludged into the pit by a mudflow.

Abstract thinking

"I'm cautious about its significance," said Professor Chris Stringer, also of the Natural History Museum. "The association of the handaxe and the skeletons in this pit of bones is a very interesting one," adding that it was possible there was some sort of symbolic association.

"But one has to put some caution into [this announcement] because it has been suggested that this is a secondary deposit and therefore could be accidental," he noted.


New discoveries are revealing just how sophisticated some of our ancestors were and how much further back in time that complexity of behaviour existed - much earlier than we thought

Read more
But Arsuaga thinks it unlikely that so many human remains could have appeared in the pit in the absence of bones from other animals.

Previously, the earliest funeral rituals were thought to be associated with Neanderthal remains dated 100,000 years ago. But some researchers dispute the significance of these sites, preferring to believe that abstract thinking began around 50,000 years ago in modern humans.

Arsuaga and his colleagues found the handaxe in 1998, but decided to search for other stone tools in the pit before announcing the find. They have found none so far.

The research is published in the French journal L'Anthropologie.


'Earliest writing' found in China

'Earliest writing' found in China

By Paul Rincon
BBC Science

Signs carved into 8,600-year-old tortoise shells found in China may be the earliest written words, say archaeologists.

First attempt at writing on a tortoise shell
The symbols were laid down in the late Stone Age, or Neolithic Age.

They predate the earliest recorded writings from Mesopotamia - in what is now Iraq - by more than 2,000 years.

The archaeologists say they bear similarities to written characters used thousands of years later during the Shang dynasty, which lasted from 1700-1100 BC.

But the discovery has already generated controversy, with one leading researcher in the field branding it "an anomaly".

The archaeologists have identified 11 separate symbols inscribed on the tortoise shells.

The shells were found buried with human remains in 24 Neolithic graves unearthed at Jiahu in Henan province, western China.

The site has been radiocarbon dated to between 6,600 and 6,200 BC.

The research was carried out by Dr Garman Harbottle, of the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, US, and a team of archaeologists at the University of Science and Technology of China, in Anhui province.

"What [the markings] appear to show are meaningful signs that have a correspondence with ancient Chinese writing," said Dr Harbottle.

The Neolithic markings include symbols that resemble the characters for "eye" and "window" and the numerals eight and 20 in the Shang script.

"If you pick up a bottle with a skull and crossbones on it, you know instantly that it's poison without the word being spelt out. We're used to signs that convey concepts and I wouldn't be surprised if that's what we're seeing here," Dr Harbottle told BBC News Online.

Writing discovery from gravesite dig
However, Professor David Keightley, of the University of California, Berkeley, US, urged caution, particularly over the proposed link to the much later Shang script.

"There is a gap of about 5,000 years [between them]. It seems astonishing that they would be connected," he said.

He added that the link had to be proved more thoroughly.

But Dr Harbottle points to the persistence of sign use at different sites along the Yellow River throughout the Neolithic and up to the Shang period, when a complex writing system appears.

He emphasised that he was not suggesting the Neolithic symbols had the same meanings as Shang characters they resembled.

Professor Keightley added: "It's a puzzle and an anomaly; [the symbols] are remarkably early. We can't call it writing until we have more evidence."

Shaman rituals

He noted that there were indications the Neolithic culture at Jiahu may not have been complex enough to require a writing system.

But Professor Keightley did say the signs appeared to be highly "schematised" or stylised. This is a feature of Chinese written characters.

The character for "eye", similar to inscriptions in the latest find
Aggregations of small pebbles were found close to several of the tortoise shells.

The Jiahu researchers propose that the shells once contained the pebbles and were used as musical rattles in shamanistic rituals.

In one grave, eight sets of tortoise shells were placed above the skeletal remains of a man whose head was missing.

The shells come from graves where, in 1999, the researchers unearthed ancient bone flutes. These flutes are the earliest musical instruments known to date.

The research is published in the journal Antiquity.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Neanderthals 'not close family'

The Neanderthals were not close relatives of modern humans and represent a single species quite distinct from our own, scientists say.
3D comparisons of Neanderthal, modern human and other primate skulls confirm theories that the ancient people were a breed apart, the researchers report.

Others claim Neanderthals contributed significantly to the modern gene pool.

Details of the research are published in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"If we accept that Neanderthals were not the same species, what we're really saying is they did not contribute at all to modern human populations and in particular modern Europeans," co-author Dr Katerina Harvati of New York University, US, told BBC News Online.

Ancestral contribution

Researchers collected data on 15 standard "landmarks", or features, on over 1,000 primate skulls. Computer software transformed this data into sets of 3D coordinates for each skull and then superimposed all these sets on top of one another.

Using statistical analysis, they compared differences between modern human and Neanderthal skulls with those found between and within 12 primate species.

The results support the view that Neanderthals were indeed a distinct species.

Neanderthals seem to have been a species distinct from our own

Enlarge Image

However, other researchers view Neanderthals as a sub-species or population of Homo sapiens that passed on genes to modern humans either by evolving into them or by interbreeding with them.

Evolving hypothesis

The new research shows that differences between Neanderthals and the modern human populations studied are smallest in early Europeans.

Dr Harvati believes this has little significance because the distance is only slightly smaller than that between Neanderthals and living humans.

But John Hawks, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, US, disagrees: "It does perhaps suggest that they have some characteristics in common," he said.


The name means 'Man from the Neander Valley'
These human 'cousins' lived 190,000-28,000 years ago
They lived in Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East
Skulls had large noses and prominent brow ridges
Body shape was stocky and muscular
If interbreeding with Homo sapiens occurred it was limited

"It really is an impressive collection of work," said Dr James Ahern of the University of Wyoming.

But Dr Ahern added that, while the Neanderthal specimens used in the study are all male, several of the early modern Europeans the authors compare them with are female skulls.

"We know that males and females differ greatly in their anatomy, and males will look more archaic than females.

"Because of this, I think the difference they observe between the Neanderthals and the Upper Palaeolithic sample is exaggerated," he explained.

"My own view is that the rate of evolutionary change was great enough that when we compare samples we are going to find that they were different because of the time," said Dr Hawks.

"[Neanderthals] existed at an earlier time and hadn't yet acquired all the characteristics that we have today."

'Lost genes'

This view is at odds with the single origin, or Out of Africa 2, theory, which postulates that all living humans expanded from a single, small population that evolved in Africa more than 150,000 years ago.

As modern humans left their African homeland, they replaced "archaic" humans living in other parts of the world.

Neanderthals appeared in Europe around 190,000 years ago, characterised by a stocky physique ideal for conserving heat in an Ice Age climate.

Shortly after modern humans arrived in Europe 35,000 years ago, Neanderthals disappear from the fossil record.

Studies of mitochondrial DNA from Neanderthal bones also suggest they had little affinity to modern populations.

But some researchers believe this does not exclude the possibility that interbreeding occurred.

Dr Magnus Nordborg, of Lund University in Sweden, has calculated that even if Neanderthals had comprised 25% of the population after merging with modern humans, their DNA might be impossible to detect today.