2 million year old possible human ancestor reconstructed

Australopithecus sediba, reconstructed from the bones of three individuals.

Australopithecus sediba, reconstructed from the bones of three individuals.

The two-million-year-old remains of several partial skeletons belonging to a previously unknown humanlike species were found in 2008 near Johannesburg. A new analysis shows this species – Australopithecus sediba – had a human-like pelvis, hands and teeth, and a chimanzee-like foot.  The findings appear in Science journal.In six separate research reports, scientists probed further into the anatomy of a juvenile male skeleton, commonly referred to as MH1, a female skeleton, known as MH2, and an isolated adult tibia or shinbone, known as MH4.

The specimens were found at Malapa in the famous Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, just to the northwest of Johannesburg. They were pulled from a pit – a depression left in the ground by a cave complex that lost its roof through erosion. Researchers think the female and male could have been mother and son.

It seems they died together in some tragic accident that saw them either fall into the cave complex or become stuck in it. After death, their bodies were washed into a pool and cemented in time along with the skeletons of many other animals – sabre-tooth cats, hyenas, antelope, even birds and mice.

The individuals from Malapa fall within a broad group known as the australopithecines, upright-walking humanlike creatures that roamed Africa between four million and two million years ago.

An analysis of Au. sediba‘s lower limb anatomy by Jeremy DeSilva from Boston University and colleagues suggests that the species walked in a unique way. Its small heel resembles that of a chimpanzee more than it does a human. This suggests it likely walked with an inward rotation of the knee and hip, with its feet slightly twisted.

This primitive way of walking might have been a compromise between upright walking and tree climbing, the researchers suggest, since Au. sediba seems to have had more adaptations for tree-climbing than other australopithecines.

More here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-22108784

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Developing lithic techniques may indicate growth in intellectual capacity

Developing lithic skills may show developing intellect.

Developing lithic skills may show developing intellect.

Los Alamos National Laboratory Fellow Giday WoldeGabriel and a team of Ethiopian, Japanese, American and German researchers have examined the world’s oldest handaxes and other stone tools from southern Ethiopia. Their observation of improved workmanship over time indicates a distinct advance in mental capabilities of the residents in the region, they claim, with potential impacts in tool-development skills, and in overall spatial and navigational capabilities, all of which improved their hunting adaptation. “Even though fossil remains of the tool makers are not commonly preserved, the handaxes clearly archive the evolution of innovation in craftsmanship, acquired intelligence and social behavior in a pre-human community over a million-year interval,” said WoldeGabriel. The scientists determined the age of the tools based on the interlayered volcanic ashes with the handaxe-bearing sedimentary deposits in Konso, Ethiopia. Handaxes and other double-sided or bifacial tools are known as the first purposely-shaped tools made by humanity and are closely associated with Homo erectus, an ancestor of modern humans. A paper in a special series of inaugural articles in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “The characteristics and chronology of the earliest Acheulean at Konso, Ethiopia,” described their work. Some experts suggest that manufacturing three-dimensional symmetric tools is possible only with advanced mental-imaging capacities. Such tools might have emerged in association with advanced spatial and navigational cognition, perhaps related to an enhanced mode of hunting adaptation. Purposeful thinning of large bifacial tools is technologically difficult, the researchers note. In modern humans, acquisition and transmission of such skills occur within a complex social context that enables sustained motivation during long-term practice and learning over a possible five-year period. Making the right tools for the job Researchers observed that the handaxes’ structure evolved from thick, roughly-manufactured stone tools in the earliest period of Acheulean tool making, approximately 1.75 million years ago to thinner and more symmetric tools around 0.85 Ma or megaannum, a unit of time equal to one million years. The Acheulean is a stone-age technology named after a site in France where handaxes from this tradition were first discovered. The chronological framework for this handaxe assemblage, based on the ages of volcanic ashes and sediments, suggests that this type of tool making was being established on a regional scale at that time, paralleling the emergence of Homo erectus-like hominid morphology. The appearance of the Ethiopian Acheulean handaxes at approximately 1.75 Ma is chronologically indistinguishable from similar tools recently found west of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, more than 125 miles to the south. “To me, the most intriguing story of the discovery is that a pre-human community lived in a locality known as Konso at the southern end of the Ethiopian Rift System for at least a million years and how the land sustained the livelihood of the occupants for that long period of time. In contrast, look at what our species has done to Earth in less than 100,000 years – the time it took for modern humans to disperse out of Africa and impose our voracious appetite for resources, threatening our planet and our existence,” WoldeGabriel said.Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2013-03-ancient-stone-tools-pace-remarkable.html#jCp

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When did modern humans leave Africa?

Ancient DNA from three humans buried 31,000 years ago at Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic has altered genetic history.

Ancient DNA from three humans buried 31,000 years ago at Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic has altered genetic history.

Our ancestors may have left Africa more recently than previously thought according to new research. Using ancient DNA for the first time from ancient Europeans such as Ötzi, the famous Iceman, a team of evolutionary geneticists has dated the start of the exodus to less than 95,000 years ago and, possibly, as recently as 62,000 years ago.

The findings fit with the evidence from fossils and stone tools, but they contradict a spate of recent genetic studies. Those studies determined the mutation rate for the entire genome from living humans by counting the number of new mutations that arise in the nuclear DNA of a newborn baby compared with its parents. The number of mutations per generation—the mutation rate—can be used to fine-tune a molecular clock that has long been used to date key events in human evolution. This supposedly better molecular clock has pushed back several important dates, such as when the ancestors of humans and chimps split and the exodus of modern humans out of Africa. Indeed, one team revised the date of the migration out of Africa from less than 80,000 years ago to at least 90,000 to 130,000 years ago.

Evolutionary geneticist Johannes Krause of the University of Tübingen in Germany, however, wasn’t so sure that a mutation rate calibrated for living humans could be applied so far back in time. He and his colleagues decided to test the idea by sequencing the DNA from the maternally inherited mitochondria (mtDNA), or powerhouses of the cell, from fossils of modern humans who lived in the past 40,000 years and whose age was reliably known from calibrated radiocarbon dating methods. If the age of the fossil was 40,000 years, for example, it would be missing 40,000 years of evolution that took place in the lineage of a living person—and, therefore, missing mutations that would have arisen during the time since the fossil human died.

The team analyzed 10 well-dated fossils, including a medieval man who lived in France 700 years ago; the 4550-year-old Iceman; two 14,000-year-old skeletons from the tombs of Oberkassel in Germany; three related, modern humans from 31,000 years ago in Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic; and an early modern human from 40,000 years ago in Tianyuan, China. When the researchers applied this ancient DNA-derived mutation rate to the out-of-Africa migration, they got a range of dates from 62,000 to 95,000 years ago for the start of the migration, which is almost half the age of the migration out of Africa that was calculated using the “de novo” mutation rate, the group reports online today in Current Biology. “The nice thing about this is it was similar to the archaeological evidence,” Krause says.

Read more: http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2013/03/clocking-the-human-exodus-out-of.html?ref=em&goback=%2Egde_118891_member_225167418

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How to make a bow and arrows using flint tools

This video by woodcraft expert Ray Mears is truly worth watching. Mears uses nothing but flint implements and natural materials from the woods and shows how to make a bow, with flint tools, how to make, straighten and fletch arrows, and how to make fire using flint and iron pyrites with fungus as tinder.

One specially interesting point is that he uses a mixture of pine resin and charcoal to glue his arrowhead to the arrow, but he doesn’t boil up pine bark – instead he searches for and scrapes away natural excrescences of resin. A second interesting point is that he makes glue to attach the feathers by chewing bluebell bulbs!

Watch here http://www.disclose.tv/action/viewvideo/121673/Making_A_Bow_And_Arrow_And_Fire_With_Stone_Age_Tools_Ray_Mears_Bushcraft/

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Why would anyone want to retouch a flint tool?

There’s a question that’s been bothering me for some time. Many flint human artefacts show evidence of retouching to the edges, apparently either to blunt them, to make them easier to hold, or to sharpen them. But why exactly would anyone want to sharpen the edge of a flint flake or blade? If you strike a flake or blade from a core, you get an object which usually has a continuous edge that is – literally – sharper than a razor. Flint can take an edge that it only a few molecules thick, far thinner and sharper than the finest steel, which is why flint is still used today by some surgeons for their scalpels. So why mess up a near perfect cutting edge by retouching it with an antler tine or bone point? I can understand if the aim is to make a denticulate saw-blade for cutting through wood, but not for the vast majority of flint tools – knives, scrapers, axes, adzes and the like. Has anyone done any comparative trial experimentally on this issue?

The mystery of the green stones

One of the mysterious green rocks - slag from an iron bloomery.

One of the mysterious green rocks – slag from an iron bloomery.

Isn’t it amazing what you can find just lying around?  A friend told me about a field near my village where he had found strange looking green stones. I searched where he told me and found a rich scatter of them – some glassy and vitreous, some cinder-like or slag-like.The stones seemed to be the residue of some smelting process – but what metal was smelted, who smelted it – and where did they get metallic ore in the South Downs?The reason for my surprise is that the Downs consist of chalk, capped by clay-with-flints – not geological formations that I had ever associated with metallic ores.  But here I was mistaken.  There are numerous brick works along the line of the South Downs, built to take advantage of the outcropping clay of the Reading Beds.Among these brick clay beds, I now learned, are found nodules rich in iron – as much as 35% or 40%.  The nodules supplied a whole iron-making industry in the Wealden area for centuries, from the beginning of the Iron Age, through the Roman occupation until late medieval times.

The manufacturing process was relatively simple. For two thousand years, people have been building a small kiln-like structure from clay  (or digging a smallish hole in the ground and lining it with clay) to create a simple smelter known as a ‘bloomery’.

A 'bloom' of iron - note fragments of flint and slag embedded in its surface.

A ‘bloom’ of iron – note fragments of flint and slag embedded in its surface.

A fire is started in the bloomery and charcoal and crushed iron ore are added through the top – just like a modern blast furnace.  The process is continued for six or seven hours, adding charcoal and iron ore, removing the slag from the bottom and topping up the furnace with it.  The end result is a roughly circular lump of iron at the bottom of the furnace called a ‘bloom’, weighing several kilogrammes.

The bloom is later processed in one of a number of ways to purify it further, either by hammering or by heat treatment, and is ultimately made into tools, harness,  weapons and a dozen other household items.

I went back to the site of my earlier finds and looked more closely.  I found more green glassy rocks and more slag.  But this time I found something else – a rusty lump weighing almost one kilogramme.  It took me some time to be sure –checking weight, density and filing off a corner to expose bright metal – but my rusty and eroded lump  was an iron ‘bloom’.  Not only was it a solid mass of metal, some of the smelting impurities were visible in the form of small fragments of flint and slag buried in the surface.

Unfortunately there is no way of dating the iron other than its archaeological context and this is ambiguous.  However, in my village there is evidence of at least five Roman buildings including one in the field where I found the bloom.  So until I unearth further evidence, my money is on it being Roman.

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Europe’s oldest Neolithic bow discovered


Europe's oldest Neolithic bow has been found in Spain.

Europe’s oldest Neolithic bow has been found in Spain.

Archaeologists working at the Neolithic site of La Draga, Banyoles Spain have excavated the oldest known Neolithic bow in Europe.  According to Barcelona University, the bow dates to between 5400-5200 BC, and is in a remarkably good state of preservation.  The date places the bow in the earliest phases of occupation at La Draga and provides archaeologists with a unique opportunity to study ancient technology.The La Draga excavation centers on a settlement that is one of the earliest farming communities north of the Iberian Peninsula. The Neolithic settlement is located in the eastern side of Lake Banyoles. Covering about 8000 m2, the site stretches along about 100 m of the lakefront and is about 80 m wide. The Neolithic beach is currently under the lake, making La Draga both a land based and underwater archaeological project.

Read the full story here: http://www.montysworldonline.com/2012/09/archaeologists-find-oldest-neolithic.html

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Stone Age ‘superglue’ held microliths in place

microlith-glueScientists in Estonia, using infrared spectroscopy, have been able to identify the adhesive used to glue an early Mesolithic microlith to its wooden shaft as birch bark tar.  Their sample came from an excavation at Pulli and was found together with a lump of the same adhesive with teeth marks where it had been chewed.  Read details here http://www.primitiveways.com/birch_bark_tar.html

Birch bark tar has long been known as the ‘superglue’ of the stone age.  It has been found on a Neanderthal spear point, with a thumb print. Pieces of chewed
birch bark tar with human teeth marks go back as far as 11,000 years. Otzi’s
5,300 year old copper axe was hafted with birch bark tar.

Birch bark oil produced by Mike Richardson.

Birch bark oil produced by Mike Richardson.

Mike Richardson, who lives in Anchorage, Alaska, has experimented with making his own birch bark tar.  Mike says, ‘Birch bark tar is a thermal plastic material, that is a solid at 65 degrees Fahrenheit. At 85 degrees Fahrenheit, it is just a bit softer and can be molded in your hands. At 105 degrees Fahrenheit, it is a medium stiff putty. At 135 degrees Fahrenheit, birch bark tar is a softer sticky putty. Birch bark tar boils at about 352 degrees Fahrenheit.”Birch bark tar is not made from the sap of birch trees like birch syrup. It is made from just birch bark heated in a oven with little air, much like charcoal. The birch bark oil, mostly betulum, will sweat out of the bark and run to the bottom of your oven.’

Read Mike’s article in full: http://www.primitiveways.com/birch_bark_tar.html

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Why have early hominids “changed” their appearance?


Early apelike restoration of Heidelberg Man

Why has our perception of the appearance of early hominids changed in recent decades?    As it is impossible to know with any real precision the facial appearance and other bodily features of early human relatives, it is not surprising that there is a subjective element in restorations, especially facial restorations.  The result is a very wide range of 3D models and images, sometimes contradicting each other.
At the extreme ends of the spectrum are restorations of the same species that are irreconcilable, at least visually.However, I have noticed that there does seem to be a general trend in such restorations.  In the early days, at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth, restorations tended to be decidedly primitive and ape-like.  Java man, Heidleberg man and Neanderthal man were generally depicted as being very crude and ape-like and were conceived of (at least popularly) as behaving in a primitive animal-like manner.  This seems to have gradually changed over the past 50 years or so with early hominids becoming represented as more and more human-like in appearance and behaviour.

Today's Heidelberg Man is much more human

Today’s Heidelberg Man is much more human

Remains of Homo Heidelbergensis found at the British Palaeolithic site at Boxgrove, for example,  (c550,000 BCE) have been restored to show a tall chap with a certain raffish charm and no trace of the ape at all.  Neanderthal man, too, has undergone something of a humanising process (perhaps helped by the discovery that most of us have up to 4% Neanderthal DNA).  Cave and Strauss, writing in the Quarterly Review of Biology observed that if he were given a bath, collar and tie, he would pass unnoticed in the New York subway.In a few cases, modern restorations depart quite significantly from the known anatomical facts.  For example, the restoration of ‘lucy’, Australopithecus afarensis, in the British Natural History Museum, shows Lucy in an upright human posture, with human-like hands and feet, even though Stern and Susman (1983) who described the type specimen, described Lucy’s hands and feet as being long and curved, and typical of those of a tree-dwelling ape.

Now it’s as plain as day that those responsible for research into early hominids have gradually changed their perceptions of the appearance of our ancestors, and that these subjective changes have found their way into museum publications, paintings and restorations.  But why exactly?  What scientific evidence has been found, or what paradigm shift has occurred, that would account for this change?

The only new information that I can think of that might contribute to this changing perception is our better knowledge and understanding of lithic technology.  When Java man was restored as ape-like, stone tools were widely regarded as crude artefacts, and evidence both of low intellect and lack of development.  We now know that making, for example, Solutrean blades, Clovis points or microlith arrows required not only a very high level of manual dexterity but also considerable forethought and pre-planning.

I wonder if anyone can suggest other reasons for this change in viewpoint?

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English Heritage unveils amazing new proposals for Stonehenge

Stonehenge now and (below) how it will look.

Stonehenge now and (below) how it will look.

English Heritage has unveiled its proposals for Stonehenge on its Website.  They are far reaching and imaginative and look as though they will restore the site to a much more natural state, while at the same time improving access for visitors.

They plan to get rid of the car park and put in a transit system like they use at The Eden Project from a new visitor centre 1.5 miles away. They’re also closing the A344 road that runs beside the monument and grassing it over.  The new visitor centre will have a large shop, cafe and exhibition area.  It will have car and coach parks screened behind trees and the contours of the landscape.  From here visitors can either catch a four-trailer transit system (like the Eden Project) or can walk to Stonehenge which will be returned to its position as the focal point of the landscape

future-aerial-view_newJudging by the artist’s impressions, the overall effect is one of enabling modern visitors to experience and appreciate Stonehenge in a way that is not all that different from the way our Neolithic ancestors experienced it.

Overall it looks like better access for more people, less damaging modern building, and returning the site to a more original state.  See their proposals here

Read the proposals in full and see a video at http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/stonehenge/our-plans/our-proposals/?goback=.gde_1826371_member_182284991

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