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Monday, 29 December 2008

Neandertals Special, 2008

Today:

  1. Alpine melt reveals ancient life
  2. Prehistoric pelvis offers clues to human development
  3. Climate change wiped out cave bears 13 millennia earlier than thought
  4. Did Neanderthal cells cook as the climate warmed?
  5. Ancient road found in cave

Alpine melt reveals ancient life

By Imogen Foulkes, BBC News, Berne

Melting alpine glaciers are revealing fascinating clues to Neolithic life in the high mountains.

Everyone knows the story of Oetzi the Ice Man, found in a glacier on the Austrian-Italian border in 1991. Oetzi was discovered at an altitude of over 3,000m.

He lived in about 3,300 BC, leading to speculation that the Alps may have had more human habitation than previously suspected.

Now, more dramatic findings from the 2,756m Schnidejoch glacier in Switzerland have confirmed the theory. A Swiss couple found a piece of wood that was examined and dated and turned out to be an arrow quiver made of birch bark, dating from about 3000 BC.

Unique findings

"Finds in the Alps are very rare anyway," explains Albert Hafner, chief archaeologist with the canton of Berne. "But this is unique; we don't know of a quiver like this anywhere else in the world."

At first, the news of the find was kept quiet; historians feared treasure hunters on the Schnidejoch as the ice melted. But teams of archaeologists went up, and more and more artefacts were discovered.

"We now have the complete bow equipment, quiver and arrows," says Mr Hafner "And we have, surprisingly, a lot of organic material like leather, parts of shoes and a trouser leg, that we wouldn't normally find."

And the finds are not confined to 3000 BC. Some of the leather found, and a fragment of a wooden bowl, date from 4500 BC, older even than Oetzi, making them the oldest objects ever found in the Alps.

And from later periods, a Bronze Age pin has been discovered, as well as Roman coins and a fibula, and items dating from the early Middle Ages.

What fascinates scientists about the age of the finds is that they correspond to times when climate specialists have already calculated the Earth was going through an especially warm period, caused by fluctuations in the orbital pattern of the Earth in relation to the Sun.

At these times, historians now speculate, the high mountain regions became accessible to humans.

For Martin Grosjean, the leather items found on the Schnidejoch, dated at over 5,000 years old, are proof, if any more were needed, that the Earth is now warming up.

"The leather is the jewel among the finds," he says. "If leather is exposed to the weather, to sun, wind and rain, it disintegrates almost immediately.

"The fact that we still find these 5,000-year-old pieces of leather tells us they were protected by the ice all this time, and that the glaciers have never been smaller than in the year 2003 and the years following."

Scientists and archaeologists from all over the world attended the conference in Berne to hear about the Schnidejoch findings, and present research of their own.

Patterns have begun to emerge: researchers in Canada's Yukon region have found evidence of Neolithic farming and domesticated animals at high altitudes.

Again, they correspond with the calculations climatologists have made about the Earth's warmer periods. source

My comment: I love such findings that cross-link different sciences. I mean what a better way to check your theory than to confirm it trough a totally unrelated way. In the case with the glaciers, this is pretty obvious. So, now that we know the Earth is warming for a fact, maybe we could be a little bit smarter on the issue. But back on the subject. It looks like the global warming is doing us a favour, because we keep on discovering older and older artefacts. Too bad we cannot find those that the water covered. But it's ok, we may do it when the weather gets colder.

Prehistoric pelvis offers clues to human development

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Discovery of the most intact female pelvis of Homo erectus may cause scientists to reevaluate how early humans evolved to successfully birth larger-brained babies. "This is the most complete female Homo erectus pelvis ever found from this time period," said Indiana University Bloomington paleoanthropologist Sileshi Semaw.

A reconstruction of the 1.2 million-year-old pelvis discovered in 2001 in the Gona Study Area at Afar, Ethiopia, that has led researchers to speculate early man was better equipped than first thought to produce larger-brained babies. The actual fossils remain in Ethiopia.

Reconstructing pelvis bone fragments from the 1.2 million-year-old adult female, Semaw and his co-workers determined the early ancestor's birth canal was more than 30 percent larger than earlier estimates based on a 1.5-million-year-old juvenile male pelvis found in Kenya. The new female fragments were discovered in the Gona Study Area in Afar, Ethiopia, in 2001 and excavation was completed in 2003.

Scientists also were intrigued by other unique attributes of the specimen, such as its shorter stature and broader body shape more likely seen in hominids adapted to temperate climates, rather than the tall and narrow body believed to have been efficient for endurance running.

Early humans became taller and narrower over time, scientists believe, partly due to long distance running and to help them maintain a constant body temperature. One consequence, however, is that a narrower pelvis would have been less accommodating to producing larger-brained offspring.

But rather than a tall, narrow hominid with the expected slight pelvic region, Semaw and the Gona researchers found evidence of a hominid ready to produce offspring with a much larger brain size. source

My comment: Again, underestimated. Of course, this finding is important. Obviously. What is intriguing for me is that archaeologists judge for our evolution only by male skeletons which is obviously wrong since the women bear the babies. Weird...

Clues to why modern humans migrated...

November 21 2008, By Shaun Smillie

70 000 years ago, the inhabitants of a cave started to produce some of the first examples of jewellery and developing new technologies that were to give them an edge in years to come.

It wasn't an isolated event, across the African continent, the same thing was happening among bands of hunter gatherers from the Western Cape to Morocco.

What sparked this, no one knows, but it was so dramatic that some believe it might originally have been caused by a sudden change in the structure of our ancestor's brains.

That cave is Sibudu Cave, situated near Tongaat, in KwaZulu Natal, and it is here that an international team of scientists are unearthing the clues to this event and are trying to make sense of it all.

What they found in the cave were minute seashells that were likely strung together to make a necklace, bone arrowheads and the residues of what is possibly the earliest example of glue and also unknown finely-crafted stone tools .

To archaeology professor Lyn Wadley of Wits University this haul reveals the earliest workings of what she calls complex cognitive behaviour.

In these artefacts, dug from the bottom of the cave are the signs of some of humans' earliest known attempts at making jewellery.

"We now know that these beads are 70 000 years old.

These changes happened in the space of about 5 000 years, an extraordinary short period of time, in the span of evolution.

For these Australian scientists, what has come out of Sibubu cave could help explain what motivated the first modern humans to migrate out of Africa, about 80 000 years ago, and later island hop from Asia to Australia.

The team has also found traces of red ochre which could have been used to paint ornaments.

With the help of a microscope the academics found traces of residue on some of the stone tools. It turned out to be plant gum mixed with red ochre, and was probably glue which required high cognitive capacity.

Earlier this year Dr Lucinda Backwell of the Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontological Research revealed that Sibubu Cave had produced what was believed to be the first bone arrow head, aged between 65 000 and 62 000 years.

The arrowheads may have been used for hunting blue duiker and plains game, then found close to the cave.

Again Wadley stressed that making such arrowheads and figuring out the technology that goes with manufacturing bows would have required a leap in thinking.

The team was even able to ascertain through studying burnt charcoal what these early humans were using for firewood and that the bones they found was smashed so as to get at the nutritious marrow inside.

A microscopic study of the sediments in the cave revealed seeds that suggested that bundles of reeds were used as early mattresses.

Similar artefacts have been found in Morocco and at other archaeological sites in South Africa and Wadley believes these developments occurred independently of each other. source

My comment: A sudden change of the brain. I wonder who has ever seen something like this. Not only that, but it was a sudden group change of the brain, because it happened all over the world. Whatever. This research only gives a good idea when the actual progress of human specie started, nothing else.

The enigma of Lake Ontario's 11,000-year-old footprints


Nov 23, 2008 ,
In the fall of 1908, while building a waterworks tunnel east of Hanlan's Point in Toronto Bay, a work crew came across 100 footprints in a layer of blue clay. The prints appeared to have been left by people wearing moccasins – 11,000 years ago.

It was an astounding discovery, perhaps the first evidence of human habitation on Lake Ontario, but few recognized its significance.

"It looked like a trail ...," city inspector W. H. Cross told the Toronto Evening Telegram about what he saw that November day. "You could follow one man the whole way. Some footprints were on top of the others, partly obliterating them. There were footprints of all sizes, and a single print of a child's foot, three and a half inches..."

He went on to describe the way the clay had shot up under the imprints of the heels, how the prints appeared to be heading north, and how he had tried to lift a piece of the clay to preserve the prints, but it broke away in his hand.

The group – likely a family, judging by the different sized prints – could have been walking from a hunting camp on the shore of Lake Ontario to what is now downtown Toronto. Back then, the shoreline would have been more than a kilometre further south.

The story is told in a new book, Toronto: A Short Illustrated History of its First 12,000 Years, which, unlike most others that look at Toronto's past, begins at the very beginning, before recorded history. Tragically, the prints were not preserved. The tunnel workers were in a hurry to complete the job, and simply poured concrete over the clay.

Though it seems shocking that a find of such potential importance was unceremoniously buried, a similar attitude toward the archaeological history of First Nations people prevails, he says.

Without seeing the prints, it's difficult to evaluate their authenticity, Williamson says, though there's no reason to believe that Cross and company were exercising a hoax.

Hunters pursuing caribou, mastodon or mammoth were known to inhabit the shoreline, then a landscape of spruce forest and tundra, similar to Canada's sub Arctic. source

My comment: What's important here is the attitude, much of which I see even today, home. It's sad to see international culture heritage being destroyed by idiots. But it's just as sad to see history destroyed by well-paid smart people. So...

Climate change wiped out cave bears 13 millennia earlier than thought

Enormous cave bears, Ursus spelaeus, that once inhabited a large swathe of Europe, from Spain to the Urals, died out 27,800 years ago, around 13 millennia earlier than was previously believed, scientists have reported.

The new date coincides with a period of significant climate change, known as the Last Glacial Maximum, when a marked cooling in temperature resulted in the reduction or loss of vegetation forming the main component of the cave bears' diet.

In a study published in Boreas, researchers suggest it was this deterioration in food supply that led to the extinction of the cave bear, one of a group of 'megafauna' – including woolly mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, giant deer and cave lion – to disappear during the last Ice Age.

They found no convincing evidence of human involvement in the disappearance of these bears. The team used both new data and existing records of radiocarbon dating on cave bear remains to construct their chronology for cave bear extinction.

The pair also concluded, from evidence on skull anatomy, bone collagen and teeth, that these extinct mammals were predominantly vegetarian, eating a specialised diet of high-quality plants. Compared with other megafaunal species that would also become extinct, the cave bear had a relatively restricted geographical range, being confined to Europe, which may offer an explanation as to why it died out so much earlier than the rest.

The brown bear, with which Ursus spelaeus shares a common ancestor, was spread throughout Europe and much of northern Asia and has survived to the present day.

Cave bears were heavily built animals, with males growing up to around 1000kg. The maximum recorded weight of both Kodiak bears and polar bears – the largest bears living today – is 800kg, with averages of around 500kg. source

My comment: Why this is important?Because it shows the massive effect that the Glacial Maximum had on the species on Earth. Imagine what its melting caused.

Did Neanderthal cells cook as the climate warmed?

Neanderthals may have gone extinct because their cells couldn't cope with climate change, according to a new hypothesis presented at a genetics conference this month.

Metabolic adaptations to Ice Age Europe may have proved costly to Neanderthals after the continent's climate started to change, says Patrick Chinnery, a molecular biologist at Newcastle University, UK.

He and colleague Gavin Hudson identified potentially harmful mutations in the newly sequenced Neanderthal mitochondrial genome. In particular, the researchers found genes that are associated with neurodegenerative diseases and deafness.

The extinction of Neanderthals, close relatives of modern humans, some 25,000 years ago remains unexplained.

Chinnery and Hudson suggest that mutations in mitochondria helped Neanderthals cope with the cold weather, but that when the climate started fluctuating between warm and cold periods, they were at a disadvantage.

In all cells, from yeast to human, a mitochondrion's main job is to produce the energy that powers cells - this takes the form of a chemical called ATP.

Mutations that sap this efficiency would generate heat instead - a potentially useful trick for Neanderthals who are known to have had adaptations to cold weather, Chinnery says. However, a warmer and less climatically stable habitat could have spelled trouble for Neanderthals with such mutations.

Perhaps the Neanderthals' mitochondrial DNA adapted them to the cold, and they couldn't cope when the climate started to change, he says.

However, with only a single Neanderthal DNA sequence decoded so far, that hypothesis remains provisional. source

My comment: I'd say precisely what the article pointed out - with our mitochondria coming only from our mothers and so prone to mutations trough out our life, it's hard to say whether what they found was common for all the Neanderhals or just for some of them or only for 1 of them. But it's an interesting theory, of course. Though, if the problem was the inner thermostat, wouldn't they just die out at once and not gradually. Because some of their traits are kept even now in some populations.

Ancient road found in cave

(26-11-2008)

HA NOI — Traces of a road used by ancient people 21,000 years ago have just been discovered at the Xom Trai Cave in the northwestern province of Hoa Binh’s Lac Son District.

Scientists from the Centre for Southeast Asian Prehistory recently made the discovery during an on-going preservation project at the site.

The Xom Trai Cave represents a typical residence of the Hoa Binh civilisation (from 34,100 years ago until 2,000 BC) in the ancient Muong Vang region, which is today’s Tan Lap Commune, Lac Son District in Hoa Binh Province.

The cave was discovered in 1974 and went through various stages of excavation in 1981, 1982, 1986 and 2004. The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism listed it as a national archaeological relic in 2005.

The Hoa Binh Museum has co-ordinated with the centre to preserve the relic since 2004. Since then, researchers have discovered traces of approximately six metres of a road at the south end of the cave’s mouth. The ancient pathway lies 60-70cm deeper than the Hoa Binh civilisation layer. The traces are believed to date back 8,000-9,000 years ago and remain in good preserved condition.

Another four metres below the Hoa Binh civilisation layer, a route presumed to be used by the earliest cave dwellers has also been discovered. The route had been hidden by several layers of stones and debris that have fallen over time due to landslides and other geological events. Also, portions of the route have been covered by hard water resulting from rain water and local limestone.

One month ago, researchers discovered 10m of another route linking the cave’s mouth to the foot of the mountain.

The excavation has also uncovered a tomb from about 17,000 years ago. The remains were buried in the typical style of the Hoa Binh civilisation, leaning towards the right with legs folded. The body’s hips were placed over 25cm of coal and the tomb was covered with soil and large stones. An oval pestle, two carving tools and a horn pointed hook were buried with the remains.

Many human bones had been found scattered about the cave before the complete tomb was discovered. source

My comment: Ok, I can't but wonder, what the hell did people use roads in caves? I mean, where are they going to? That's so odd.

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