giant ostrich Crimean cave

Bird three times larger than ostrich discovered in Crimean cave

Bird three times larger than ostrich discovered in Crimean cave

First evidence that giant ostrich-like birds once roamed Europe

giant ostrich Crimean cave
PaleoArt of the bird discovered in a Crimean cave. It weighed three times the largest living bird, the common ostrich. Credit: Andrey Atuchin

A surprise discovery in a Crimean cave suggests that early Europeans lived alongside some of the largest ever known birds, according to new research published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

It was previously thought that such gigantism in birds only ever existed on the islands of Madagascar and New Zealand as well as Australia. The newly-discovered specimen, discovered in the Taurida Cave on the northern coast of the Black Sea, suggests a bird as giant as the Madagascan elephant bird or New Zealand moa. It may have been a source of meat, bones, feathers and eggshell for early humans.

"When I first felt the weight of the bird whose thigh bone I was holding in my hand, I thought it must be a Malagasy elephant bird fossil because no birds of this size have ever been reported from Europe. However, the structure of the bone unexpectedly told a different story," says lead author Dr Nikita Zelenkov from the Russian Academy of Sciences.

"We don't have enough data yet to say whether it was most closely related to ostriches or to other birds, but we estimate it weighed about 450kg. This formidable weight is nearly double the largest moa, three times the largest living bird, the common ostrich, and nearly as much as an adult polar bear."

It is the first time a bird of such size has been reported from anywhere in the northern hemisphere. Although the species was previously known, no one ever tried to calculate the size of this animal. The flightless bird, attributed to the species Pachystruthio dmanisensis, was probably at least 3.5 metres tall and would have towered above early humans. It may have been flightless but it was also fast.

While elephant birds were hampered by their great size when it came to speed, the femur of the current bird was relatively long and slim, suggesting it was a better runner. The femur is comparable to modern ostriches as well as smaller species of moa and terror birds. Speed may have been essential to the bird's survival. Alongside its bones, palaeontologists found fossils of highly-specialised, massive carnivores from the Ice Age. They included giant cheetah, giant hyenas and sabre-toothed cats, which were able to prey on mammoths.

Other fossils discovered alongside the specimen, such as bison, help date it to 1.5 to 2 million years ago. A similar range of fossils was discovered at an archaeological site in the town of Dmanisi in Georgia, the oldest hominin site outside Africa. Although previously neglected by science, this suggests the giant bird may have been typical of the animals found at the time when the first hominins arrived in Europe. The authors suggest it reached the Black Sea region via the Southern Caucasus and Turkey.

The body mass of the bird was reconstructed using calculations from several formulae, based on measurements from the femur bone. Applying these formulae, the body mass of the bird was estimated to be around 450kg. Such gigantism may have originally evolved in response to the environment, which was increasingly arid as the Pleistocene epoch approached. Animals with a larger body mass have lower metabolic demands and can therefore make use of less nutritious food growing in open steppes.

"The Taurida cave network was only discovered last summer when a new motorway was being built. Last year, mammoth remains were unearthed and there may be much more to that the site will teach us about Europe's distant past," says Zelenkov.

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Oldest flaked stone tools point to the repeated invention of stone tools

Oldest flaked stone tools point to the repeated invention of stone tools

stone tools
A large green artifact found in situ at the Bokol Dora site. Right: Image of the same artifact and a three dimensional model of the same artifact. Credit: David R. Braun

A new archaeological site discovered by an international and local team of scientists working in Ethiopia shows that the origins of stone tool production are older than 2.58 million years ago. Previously, the oldest evidence for systematic stone tool production and use was 2.58 to 2.55 million years ago.

Analysis by the researchers of early stone age sites, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that stone tools may have been invented many times in many ways before becoming an essential part of the human lineage.

The excavation site, known as Bokol Dora 1 or BD 1, is close to the 2013 discovery of the oldest fossil attributed to our genus Homo discovered at Ledi-Geraru in the Afar region of northeastern Ethiopia. The fossil, a jaw bone, dates to about 2.78 million years ago, some 200,000 years before the then oldest flaked stone tools. The Ledi-Geraru team has been working for the last five years to find out if there is a connection between the origins of our genus and the origins of systematic stone tool manufacture.

A significant step forward in this search was uncovered when Arizona State University geologist Christopher Campisano saw sharp-edged stone tools sticking out of the sediments on a steep, eroded slope.

Archaeologists from the Max Planck Institute, and the Ethiopian Authority for Research and the Conservation of Cultural Heritage as well as geologists from University of Algarve study the sediments at the Bokol Dora site. Stones were placed on the contact surface during the excavation to preserve the fragile stratigraphic contacts. Credit: Erin DiMaggio

"At first we found several artifacts lying on the surface, but we didn't know what sediments they were coming from," says Campisano. "But when I peered over the edge of a small cliff, I saw rocks sticking out from the mudstone face. I scaled up from the bottom using my rock hammer and found two nice stone tools starting to weather out."

It took several years to excavate through meters of sediments by hand before exposing an archaeological layer of animal bones and hundreds of small pieces of chipped stone representing the earliest evidence of our direct ancestors making and using stone knives. The site records a wealth of information about how and when humans began to use stone tools.

Preservation of the artifacts comes from originally being buried close to a water source.

"Looking at the sediments under a microscope, we could see that the site was exposed only for a very short time. These tools were dropped by early humans at the edge of a water source and then quickly buried. The site then stayed that way for millions of years," noted geoarchaeologist Vera Aldeias of the Interdisciplinary Center for Archaeology and Behavioral Evolution at the University of Algarve, Portugal.

Kaye Reed, who studies the site's ecology, is director of the Ledi-Geraru Research Project and a research associate with Arizona State University's Institute of Human Origins along with Campisano, notes that the animals found with these tools were similar to those found only a few kilometers away with the earliest Homo fossils.

Blade Engda of the University of Poitiers lifts an artifact from 2.6 million year old sediment exposing an imprint of the artifact on the ancient surface below. Credit: David R. Braun

"The early humans that made these stone tools lived in a totally different habitat than 'Lucy' did," says Reed. "Lucy" is the nickname for an older species of hominin known as Australopithecus afarensis, which was discovered at the site of Hadar, Ethiopia, about 45 kilometers southwest of the new BD 1 site. "The habitat changed from one of shrubland with occasional trees and riverine forests to open grasslands with few trees. Even the fossil giraffes were eating grass!"

In addition to dating a volcanic ash several meters below the site, project geologists analyzed the magnetic signature of the site's sediments. Over the Earth's history, its magnetic polarity has reversed at intervals that can be identified. Other earlier archaeological sites near the age of BD 1 are in "reversed" polarity sediments. The BD 1 site is in "normal" polarity sediments. The reversal from "normal" to "reversed" happened at about 2.58 million years ago, geologists knew that BD 1 was older than all the previously known sites.

The recent discovery of older hammering or "percussive" stone tools in Kenya dated to 3.3 million years ago, described as "Lomekwian," and butchered bones in Ethiopia shows the deep history of our ancestors making and using tools. However, recent discoveries of tools made by chimpanzees and monkeys have challenged "technological ape" ideas of human origins.

Archaeologists working at the BD 1 site wondered how their new stone tool discovery fit into this increasingly complex picture. What they found was that not only were these new tools the oldest artifacts yet ascribed to the "Oldowan," a technology originally named after finds from Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, but also were distinct from tools made by chimpanzees, monkeys or even earlier human ancestors.

"We expected to see some indication of an evolution from the Lomekwian to these earliest Oldowan tools. Yet when we looked closely at the patterns, there was very little connection to what is known from older archaeological sites or to the tools modern primates are making," said Will Archer of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and the University of Cape Town.

The major differences appear to be the ability for our ancestors to systematically chip off smaller sharp-edged tools from larger nodules of stone. Chimpanzees and monkeys generally use tools for percussive activities, to hammer and bash food items like nuts and shellfish, which seems to have been the case with the 3.3 million year old Lomekwian tools as well.

Something changed by 2.6 million years ago, and our ancestors became more accurate and skilled at striking the edge of stones to make tools. The BD 1 artifacts captures this shift.

It appears that this shift in tool making occurred around the same time that our ancestor's teeth began to change. This can be seen in the Homo jaw from Ledi-Geraru. As our ancestors began to process food prior to eating using using stone tools, we start to see a reduction in the size of their teeth. Our technology and biology were intimately intertwined even as early as 2.6 million years ago.

The lack of clear connections with earlier stone tool technology suggests that tool use was invented multiple times in the past.

David Braun, an archaeologist with George Washington University and the lead author on the paper, noted, "Given that primate species throughout the world routinely use stone hammers to forage for new resources, it seems very possible that throughout Africa many different human ancestors found new ways of using stone artifacts to extract resources from their environment. If our hypothesis is correct then we would expect to find some type of continuity in artifact form after 2.6 million years ago, but not prior to this time period. We need to find more sites."

By 2.6 million years ago, there appears to be a long-term investment in tool use as part of the human condition.

Continued field investigations at the Ledi-Geraru project area are already producing more insights into the patterns of behavior in our earliest ancestors. New sites have already been found, and the Ledi-Geraru team will begin excavating them this year.

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This research was supported by the United States National Science Foundation and the John Templeton Foundation.

This research, "Earliest known Oldowan artifacts at >2.58 Ma from Ledi-Geraru, Ethiopia, highlight early technological diversity," is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

 

Press release from the Arizona State University


Unexpected potential paths for the spread of Homo Sapiens across Asia in Late Pleistocene

Humans used northern migration routes to reach eastern Asia

New article suggests wetter climates may have allowed Homo sapiens to expand across the deserts of Central Asia by 50-30,000 years ago

 

Northern and Central Asia have been neglected in studies of early human migration, with deserts and mountains being considered uncompromising barriers. However, a new study by an international team argues that humans may have moved through these extreme settings in the past under wetter conditions. We must now reconsider where we look for the earliest traces of our species in northern Asia, as well as the zones of potential interaction with other hominins such as Neanderthals and Denisovans.

Archaeologists and palaeoanthropologists are increasingly interested in discovering the environments facing the earliest members of our species, Homo sapiens, as it moved into new parts of Eurasia in the Late Pleistocene (125,000-12,000 years ago). Much attention has focused on a 'southern' route around the Indian Ocean, with Northern and Central Asia being somewhat neglected. However, in a paper published in PLOS ONE, scientists of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Human Science in Jena, Germany, and colleagues at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, China, argue that climate change may have made this a particularly dynamic region of hominin dispersal, interaction, and adaptation, and a crucial corridor for movement.

'Heading North' Out of Africa and into Asia

"Archaeological discussions of the migration routes of Pleistocene Homo sapiens have often focused on a 'coastal' route from Africa to Australia, skirting around India and Southeast Asia," says Professor Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, a co-author of the new study. "In the context of northern Asia, a route into Siberia has been preferred, avoiding deserts such as the Gobi." Yet over the past ten years, a variety of evidence has emerged that has suggested that areas considered inhospitable today might not have always been so in the past.

"Our previous work in Saudi Arabia, and work in the Thar Desert of India, has been key in highlighting that survey work in previously neglected regions can yield new insights into human routes and adaptations," says Petraglia. Indeed, if Homo sapiens could cross what is now the Arabian Deserts then what would have stopped it crossing other currently arid regions such as the Gobi Desert, the Junggar Basin, and the Taklamakan Desert at different points in the past? Similarly, the Altai Mountains, the Tien Shan and the Tibetan Plateau represent a potentially new high altitude window into human evolution, especially given the recent Denisovan findings from Denisova Cave in Russia and at the Baishiya Karst Cave in China.

Nevertheless, traditional research areas, a density of archaeological sites, and assumptions about the persistence of environmental 'extremes' in the past has led to a focus on Siberia, rather than the potential for interior routes of human movement across northern Asia.

A "Green Gobi"?

The sand dunes of Mongol Els jutting out of the steppe in Mongolia. Many of these desert barriers only appeared after the Last Glacial Maximum (~20,000 years ago). Credit: Nils Vanwezer

Indeed, palaeoclimatic research in Central Asia has increasingly accumulated evidence of past lake extents, past records of changing precipitation amounts, and changing glacial extents in mountain regions, which suggest that environments could have varied dramatically in this part of the world over the course of the Pleistocene. However, the dating of many of these environmental transitions has remained broad in scale, and these records have not yet been incorporated into archaeological discussions of human arrival in northern and Central Asia.

"We factored in climate records and geographical features into GIS models for glacials (periods during which the polar ice caps were at their greatest extent) and interstadials (periods during the retreat of these ice caps) to test whether the direction of past human movement would vary, based on the presence of these environmental barriers," says Nils Vanwezer, PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and a joint lead-author of the study.

"We found that while during 'glacial' conditions humans would indeed likely have been forced to travel via a northern arc through southern Siberia, during wetter conditions a number of alternative pathways would have been possible, including across a 'green' Gobi Desert," he continues. Comparisons with the available palaeoenvironmental records confirm that local and regional conditions would have been very different in these parts of Asia in the past, making these 'route' models a definite possibility for human movement.

Where did you come from, where did you go?

Ancient lake landforms around Biger Nuur, Mongolia, which is evidence of larger lake sizes in the past. Credit: Nils Vanwezer

"We should emphasize that these routes are not 'real', definite pathways of Pleistocene human movement. However, they do suggest that we should look for human presence, migration, and interaction with other hominins in new parts of Asia that have been neglected as static voids of archaeology," says Dr. Patrick Roberts also of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, co-author of the study. "Given what we are increasingly discovering about the flexibility of our species, it would be of no surprise if we were to find early Homo sapiens in the middle of modern deserts or mountainous glacial sheets."

"These models will stimulate new survey and fieldwork in previously forgotten regions of northern and Central Asia," says Professor Nicole Boivin, Director of the Department of Archaeology at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, and co-author of the study. "Our next task is to undertake this work, which we will be doing in the next few years with an aim to test these new potential models of human arrival in these parts of Asia."

 

Press release from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History / Max-Planck-Instituts für Menschheitsgeschichte

 

Homo sapiens may have had several routes of dispersal across Asia in the Late Pleistocene

A new model identifies unexpected potential paths for the spread of human culture and technology

Eastern Asia Central Homo Sapiens migrations
Illustrated dispersal routes from the results of the Least Cost Path analysis: The three routes from the "wet" simulations and the single route from the "dry" simulation are presented together in conjunction with palaeoclimatic extents (glaciers and palaeolakes). Sites: 4. Obi-Rakhmat, 5. Shugnou, 8. Denisova, 9. Ust-Karakol, 10. Kara-Tenesh, 11. Kara-Bom, 12. Luotuoshi, 14. Gouxi, 15. Lenghu 1, 17. Chikhen Agui, 18. Tsagaan Agui, 19. Tolbor 4, 20. Kharganyn Gol 5, 21. Orkhon 1 & 7, 22. Makarovo 4, 23. Kandabaevo, 24. Varvarina Gora, 25. Tolbaga, 27. Shuidonggou 1, 28. Shuidonggou 9, 42. Yushuwan, 70. Shibazhan (75075). I. 'Altai' Route, II. 'Tian Shan' Route, III. 'Tarim' Route, IV. "Revised Overland' Route. Base map raster is from naturalearthdata.com. Credit: Li et al, 2019

Homo sapiens may have had a variety of routes to choose from while dispersing across Asia during the Late Pleistocene Epoch, according to a study released May 29, 2019 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Feng Li of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing and colleagues.

After leaving Africa, Homo sapiens dispersed across the Asian continent during the Late Pleistocene, but it isn't known exactly what routes our species followed. Most models assume that the Gobi Desert and Altai Mountain chains of North and Central Asia formed impassable barriers on the way to the east, so archaeological exploration has tended to neglect those regions in favor of seemingly more likely paths farther north and south.

In this study, Li and colleagues use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software alongside archaeological and paleoclimate data to reconstruct the conditions of North and Central Asia over the Late Pleistocene and to identify possible routes of travel. Their data suggest that the desert and mountain regions were likely impassable during cold and dry glacial periods, but that during warmer and wetter interglacial times it would have been possible for human populations to traverse these regions via at least three routes following ancient lake and river systems.

The authors caution that these data do not demonstrate definite routes of dispersal and that more detailed models should be constructed to test these results. However, these models do identify specific routes that may be good candidates for future archaeological exploration. Understanding the timing and tempo of Homo sapiens dispersal across Asia will be crucial for determining how culture and technology spread and developed, as well as how our species interacted with our extinct cousins, the Neanderthals and Denisovans.

Roberts adds: "Our modelling of the available geographic and past climate data suggest that archaeologists and anthropologists should look for early human presence, migration, and interaction with other hominins in new parts of Asia that have been neglected as static voids. Given what we are increasingly discovering about the flexibility of our species, it would be of no surprise if we were to find early Homo sapiens in the middle of modern deserts or mountainous glacial sheets all across Asia. Indeed, it may be here that the key to our species' uniqueness lies".

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Citation: Li F, Vanwezer N, Boivin N, Gao X, Ott F, Petraglia M, et al. (2019) Heading north: Late Pleistocene environments and human dispersals in central and eastern Asia. PLoS ONE 14(5): e0216433. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0216433

Funding: This study was funded by Max-Planck-Gesellschaft (DE) to Nicole Boivin, Strategic Priority Research Program of Chinese Academy of Sciences grant XDB26000000 to Feng Li, and Youth Innovation Promotion Association of the Chinese Academy of Sciences grant 2017102 to Feng Li. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

 

Press release from the Public Library of Sciences


Neanderthals and modern humans diverged at least 800,000 years ago

Neanderthals and modern humans diverged at least 800,000 years ago

Neanderthals and modern humans diverged at least 800,000 years ago, substantially earlier than indicated by most DNA-based estimates, according to new research by a UCL academic.

Neanderthals diverged teeth
Dental morphology. Credit: Aida Gómez-Robles

The research, published in Science Advances, analysed dental evolutionary rates across different hominin species, focusing on early Neanderthals. It shows that the teeth of hominins from Sima de los Huesos, Spain - ancestors of the Neanderthals - diverged from the modern human lineage earlier than previously assumed.

Sima de los Huesos is a cave site in Atapuerca Mountains, Spain, where archaeologists have recovered fossils of almost 30 people. Previous studies date the site to around 430,000 years ago (Middle Pleistocene), making it one of the oldest and largest collections of human remains discovered to date.

Dr Aida Gomez-Robles (UCL Anthropology), said: "Any divergence time between Neanderthals and modern humans younger than 800,000 years ago would have entailed an unexpectedly fast dental evolution in the early Neanderthals from Sima de los Huesos."

"There are different factors that could potentially explain these results, including strong selection to change the teeth of these hominins or their isolation from other Neanderthals found in mainland Europe. However, the simplest explanation is that the divergence between Neanderthals and modern humans was older than 800,000 years. This would make the evolutionary rates of the early Neanderthals from Sima de los Huesos roughly comparable to those found in other species."

Modern humans share a common ancestor with Neanderthals, the extinct species that were our closest prehistoric relatives. However, the details on when and how they diverged are a matter of intense debate within the anthropological community.

Ancient DNA analyses have generally indicated that both lineages diverged around 300,000 to 500,000 years ago, which has strongly influenced the interpretation of the hominin fossil record.

This divergence time, however, is not compatible with the anatomical and genetic Neanderthal similarities observed in the hominins from Sima de los Huesos. The Sima fossils are considered likely Neanderthal ancestors based on both anatomical features and DNA analysis.

Dr Gomez-Robles said: "Sima de los Huesos hominins are characterised by very small posterior teeth (premolars and molars) that show multiple similarities with classic Neanderthals. It is likely that the small and Neanderthal-looking teeth of these hominins evolved from the larger and more primitive teeth present in the last common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans."

Dental shape has evolved at very similar rates across all hominin species, including those with very expanded and very reduced teeth. This new study examined the time at which Neanderthals and modern humans should have diverged to make the evolutionary rate of the early Neanderthals from Sima de los Huesos similar to those observed in other hominins.

The research used quantitative data to measure the evolution of dental shape across hominin species assuming different divergent times between Neanderthals and modern humans, and accounting for the uncertainty about the evolutionary relationships between different hominin species.

"The Sima people's teeth are very different from those that we would expect to find in their last common ancestral species with modern humans, suggesting that they evolved separately over a long period of time to develop such stark differences."

The study has significant implications for the identification of Homo sapiens last common ancestral species with Neanderthals, as it allows ruling out all the groups postdating 800,000 year ago.

Neanderthals diverged teeth
Hominin teeth. Credit: Aida Gómez-Robles

Press release from University College London


Denisovans Tibetan Plateau Baishiya Karst Cave Xiahe mandible

First hominins on the Tibetan Plateau were Denisovans

First hominins on the Tibetan Plateau were Denisovans

Denisovan mandible likely represents the earliest hominin fossil on the Tibetan Plateau

Denisovans Tibetan Plateau Baishiya Karst Cave Xiahe mandible
The Xiahe mandible, only represented by its right half, was found in 1980 in Baishiya Karst Cave. Credit: © Dongju Zhang, Lanzhou University

So far Denisovans were only known from a small collection of fossil fragments from Denisova Cave in Siberia. A research team led by Fahu Chen from the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, CAS, Dongju Zhang from Lanzhou University and Jean-Jacques Hublin from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology now describes a 160,000-year-old hominin mandible from Xiahe in China. Using ancient protein analysis the researchers found that the mandible’s owner belonged to a population that was closely related to the Denisovans from Siberia. This population occupied the Tibetan Plateau in the Middle Pleistocene and was adapted to this low-oxygen environment long before Homo sapiens arrived in the region.

Denisovans - an extinct sister group of Neandertals - were discovered in 2010, when a research team led by Svante Pääbo from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI-EVA) sequenced the genome of a fossil finger bone found at Denisova Cave in Russia and showed that it belonged to a hominin group that was genetically distinct from Neandertals. "Traces of Denisovan DNA are found in present-day Asian, Australian and Melanesian populations, suggesting that these ancient hominins may have once been widespread," says Jean-Jacques Hublin, director of the Department of Human Evolution at the MPI-EVA. "Yet so far the only fossils representing this ancient hominin group were identified at Denisova Cave."

Mandible from Baishiya Karst Cave

In their new study, the researchers now describe a hominin lower mandible that was found on the Tibetan Plateau in Baishiya Karst Cave in Xiahe, China. The fossil was originally discovered in 1980 by a local monk who donated it to the 6th Gung-Thang Living Buddha who then passed it on to Lanzhou University. Since 2010, researchers Fahu Chen and Dongju Zhang from Lanzhou University have been studying the area of the discovery and the cave site from where the mandible originated. In 2016, they initiated a collaboration with the Department of Human Evolution at the MPI-EVA and have since been jointly analysing the fossil.

While the researchers could not find any traces of DNA preserved in this fossil, they managed to extract proteins from one of the molars, which they then analysed applying ancient protein analysis. "The ancient proteins in the mandible are highly degraded and clearly distinguishable from modern proteins that may contaminate a sample," says Frido Welker of the MPI-EVA and the University of Copenhagen. "Our protein analysis shows that the Xiahe mandible belonged to a hominin population that was closely related to the Denisovans from Denisova Cave."

Primitive shape and large molars

The researchers found the mandible to be well-preserved. Its robust primitive shape and the very large molars still attached to it suggest that this mandible once belonged to a Middle Pleistocene hominin sharing anatomical features with Neandertals and specimens from the Denisova Cave. Attached to the mandible was a heavy carbonate crust, and by applying U-series dating to the crust the researchers found that the Xiahe mandible is at least 160,000 years old. Chuan-Chou Shen from the Department of Geosciences at National Taiwan University, who conducted the dating, says: "This minimum age equals that of the oldest specimens from the Denisova Cave".

"The Xiahe mandible likely represents the earliest hominin fossil on the Tibetan Plateau," says Fahu Chen, director of the Institute of Tibetan Research, CAS. These people had already adapted to living in this high-altitude low-oxygen environment long before Homo sapiens even arrived in the region. Previous genetic studies found present-day Himalayan populations to carry the EPAS1 allele in their genome, passed on to them by Denisovans, which helps them to adapt to their specific environment.

"Archaic hominins occupied the Tibetan Plateau in the Middle Pleistocene and successfully adapted to high-altitude low-oxygen environments long before the regional arrival of modern Homo sapiens," says Dongju Zhang. According to Hublin, similarities with other Chinese specimens confirm the presence of Denisovans among the current Asian fossil record. "Our analyses pave the way towards a better understanding of the evolutionary history of Middle Pleistocene hominins in East Asia."

 

 

Press release from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology / Max-Planck-Institut für evolutionäre Anthropologie in Leipzig 

Tibetan plateau first occupied by middle Pleistocene Denisovans

Baishiya Karst Cave
Fieldwork in the Baishiya Karst Cave and surrounding regions. Credit: ITP

The Tibetan Plateau, as Earth's "Third Pole," was reported to be first occupied by modern humans probably armed with blade technology as early as 40 ka BP. However, no earlier hominin groups had been found or reported on the Tibetan Plateau until a recent study was published by Chinese researchers.

A joint research team led by CHEN Fahu from the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and ZHANG Dongju from the Lanzhou University reported their studies on a human mandible found in Xiahe, on the Northeastern Tibetan Plateau. The findings were published in Nature.

The researchers found that the mandible came from an individual who belonged to a population closely related to the Denisovans first found in Siberia. This population occupied the Tibetan Plateau in the Middle Pleistocene and adapted to this low-oxygen environment long before the arrival of modern Homo sapiens in the region.

So far, Denisovans are only known from a small collection of fossil fragments from Denisova Cave in Siberia. Traces of Denisovan DNA are found in present-day Asian, Australian and Melanesian populations, suggesting that these ancient hominins may have once been widespread.

This study confirms for the first time that Denisovans not only lived in East Asia but also on the high-altitude Tibetan Plateau. It also indicates that the previously found possible introgression of Denisovan DNA (EPAS1) into modern Tibetans and Sherpas, who mainly live on the high-altitude Tibetan Plateau and surrounding regions today, is probably derived or inherited locally on Tibetan Plateau from Xiahe hominin represented by this Xiahe mandible.

The reported Xiahe mandible was found on the Tibetan Plateau in the Baishiya Karst Cave in Xiahe, China. Researchers managed to extract collagen from one of the molars, which they then analysed using ancient protein analysis. Ancient protein data showed that the Xiahe mandible belonged to a hominin population closely related to the Denisovans from Denisova Cave.

The robust primitive shape of the mandible and the very large molars still attached to it suggest that this mandible once belonged to a Middle Pleistocene hominin sharing anatomical features with Neandertals and specimens from the Denisova Cave.

Attached to the mandible was a heavy carbonate crust. By applying U-series dating to the crust, the researchers found that the Xiahe mandible is at least 160,000 years old, representing a minimum age of human presence on the Tibetan Plateau.

The similarities between the Xiahe mandible and other Chinese specimens confirm the presence of Denisovans among the current Asian fossil record. The current study paves the way towards a better understanding of the evolutionary history of Middle Pleistocene hominins in East Asia.

 

Press release from the Chinese Academy of Sciences


brain fossils neuroanatomy

Brain, shape and fossils

Brain, shape and fossils

Emiliano Bruner has just published a paper on the shape of the brain over human evolution, which reviews the evolutionary relationship between humans and the other primates, as well as the most recent methods for comparing the principal variations between brain and cranium

brain fossils neuroanatomy
Credit: Emiliano Bruner

Emiliano Bruner, a paleoneurologist at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), has just published an overview article in the Journal of Comparative Neurology, on studies of changes in brain shape over the course of human evolution, which considers the evolutionary relationship between humans and the other primates.

Evolutionary neuroanatomy must integrate two different sources of information: fossils and living species. The fossils furnish data on the process of evolution, while living species do the same for the product of evolution. Unfortunately, the fossil record is incomplete and fragmented, and often cannot support validations for specific evolutionary hypotheses. Extant species can offer more comprehensive indications, but they do not represent ancestral groups or primitive forms.

Specifically, this paper reviews the limitations on studies of evolutionary neuroanatomy and the different contributions made by analyses of living primates and extinct hominins. For instance, the great apes are still interpreted as primitive biological models, even though these are species that have evolved independently of the path traced by the human genus. “Macaques or chimpanzees are frequently used as proxy for human ancestral conditions, despite the fact they are divergent and specialized lineages, with their own biological features”, says Bruner.

With regard to the fossils, these can furnish more direct information about the evolutionary process, but the limitations of the samples often do not allow scientific testing of our hypotheses, leading to a lot of guesswork. In fact, as Bruner explains, “independent lineages, such as the Neanderthals, ought not to be confused with ancestral modern human stages”.

Endocranial molds
The paper also introduces the most recent methods for computed morphometrics and biomedical image analysis, describing the principal variations in brains and endocranial molds (endocasts) for modern humans and extinct hominins, in addition to the spatial relationship between brain and cranium in the human genus.

Finally, it proposes integrating anatomical and cultural information with what is known in neurobiology when formulating hypotheses about cognitive evolution. One example would be the evolution of the parietal cortex and its schemes of cerebral connections.

This paper, entitled Human paleoneurology: shaping cortical evolution in fossil hominids, has been published in a volume dedicated to the evolution of the cerebral cortex, edited by Verónica Martínez-Cerdeño and Stephen Noctor, of the University of California at Davis (USA).

 

Full bibliographic information

 

"Human paleoneurology: shaping cortical evolution in fossil hominids", edited by Verónica Martínez-Cerdeño and Stephen Noctor Journal of Comparative Neurology (0). doi: 10.1002/cne.24591

Press release from the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH) / ES


Middle Pleistocene asian Hualongdong Hualong cave

Middle Pleistocene human skull reveals variation and continuity in early Asian humans

Middle Pleistocene human skull reveals variation and continuity in early Asian humans

Middle Pleistocene asian Hualongdong
The Hualongdong Middle Pleistocene human skull and the collapsed cave site, with the fossil-bearing breccia in beige aournd the limestone blocks. Credit: WU Xiujie and Erik Trinkaus

A team of scientists led by LIU Wu and WU Xiujie from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences reported the first ever Middle Pleistocene human skull found in southeastern China, revealing the variation and continuity in early Asian humans. Their findings were published on April 30 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Excavations in Middle Pleistocene cave deposits in southeastern China yielded a largely complete skull that exhibits morphological similarities to other East Asian Middle and Late Pleistocene archaic human remains, but also foreshadows later modern human forms.

Fossil evidence for human evolution in East Asia during the Pleistocene is often fragmentary and scattered, which makes evaluating the pattern of archaic human evolution and modern human emergence in the region complicated.

Middle Pleistocene asian Hualongdong Hualong cave
The virtual reconstruction of the Hualongdong 6 human skull, with mirror-imaged portions in gray, plus two of the few stone tools from the site. Credit: WU Xiujie

WU Xiujie and his colleagues reported the recent discovery of most of a skull and associated remains dating to around 300,000 years ago in Hualong Cave (Hualongdong). The features of the Hualongdong fossils complement those of other East Asian remains in indicating a continuity of form through the Middle Pleistocene and into the Late Pleistocene.

In particular, the skull features a low and wide braincase with a projecting brow but a less prominent midface, as well as an incipient chin. The teeth are simple in form, contrasting with other archaic East Asian fossils, and its third molar is either reduced in size or absent.

According to the authors, the remains not only add to the expected variation of these Middle Pleistocene humans, recombining features present in other individuals from the same time period, but also foreshadow developments in modern humans, providing evidence for regional continuity.

 

Press release from the Chinese Academy of Sciences


human face hominins evolution

Need for social skills helped shape modern human face

Need for social skills helped shape modern human face

The modern human face is distinctively different to that of our near relatives and now researchers believe its evolution may have been partly driven by our need for good social skills

This is professor Paul O'Higgins from the University of York. Credit: University of York

The modern human face is distinctively different to that of our near relatives and now researchers believe its evolution may have been partly driven by our need for good social skills.

As large-brained, short-faced hominins, our faces are different from other, now extinct hominins (such as the Neanderthals) and our closest living relatives (bonobos and chimpanzees), but how and why did the modern human face evolve this way?

A new review published in Nature Ecology and Evolution and authored by a team of international experts, including researchers from the University of York, traces changes in the evolution of the face from the early African hominins to the appearance of modern human anatomy.

They conclude that social communication has been somewhat overlooked as a factor underlying the modern human facial form. Our faces should be seen as the result of a combination of biomechanical, physiological and social influences, the authors of the study say.

The researchers suggest that our faces evolved not only due to factors such as diet and climate, but possibly also to provide more opportunities for gesture and nonverbal communication - vital skills for establishing the large social networks which are believed to have helped Homo sapiens to survive.

"We can now use our faces to signal more than 20 different categories of emotion via the contraction or relaxation of muscles", says Paul O'Higgins, Professor of Anatomy at the Hull York Medical School and the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. "It's unlikely that our early human ancestors had the same facial dexterity as the overall shape of the face and the positions of the muscles were different."

human face hominins evolution
These are skulls of hominins over the last 4.4 million years. Credit: Rodrigo Lacruz

Instead of the pronounced brow ridge of other hominins, humans developed a smooth forehead with more visible, hairy eyebrows capable of a greater range of movement. This, alongside our faces becoming more slender, allows us to express a wide range of subtle emotions - including recognition and sympathy.

"We know that other factors such as diet, respiratory physiology and climate have contributed to the shape of the modern human face, but to interpret its evolution solely in terms of these factors would be an oversimplification," Professor O'Higgins adds.

The human face has been partly shaped by the mechanical demands of feeding and over the past 100,000 years our faces have been getting smaller as our developing ability to cook and process food led to a reduced need for chewing.

This facial shrinking process has become particularly marked since the agricultural revolution, as we switched from being hunter gatherers to agriculturalists and then to living in cities - lifestyles that led to increasingly pre-processed foods and less physical effort.

"Softer modern diets and industrialised societies may mean that the human face continues to decrease in size", says Professor O'Higgins. "There are limits on how much the human face can change however, for example breathing requires a sufficiently large nasal cavity."

"However, within these limits, the evolution of the human face is likely to continue as long as our species survives, migrates and encounters new environmental, social and cultural conditions."

 

 

The Evolutionary History of the Human Face is published in Nature Ecology and Evolution. The review was carried out in collaboration with colleagues from international institutions including the New York University College of Dentistry, the Natural History Museum, Arizona State University and Universidad Complutense de Madrid.

Press release from the University of York


Multiple Denisovan-related ancestries in Papuans

Multiple Denisovan-related ancestries in Papuans

DNA sequences from Indonesia and New Guinea reveal new branches of the Denisovan family tree

Papuans Papua New Guinea Denisovans
People from New Guinea and nearby islands, such as these children from Kei Island, carry evidence of ancestry from more than one group of Denisovans. Credit: © Isabella Apriyana

As they dispersed out of Africa anatomically modern humans interbred with their close relatives, the Neanderthals and Denisovans. An international research team examined DNA fragments passed down from these ancient hominins to modern people living in Island Southeast Asia and New Guinea. Their study suggests that the ancestry of Papuans includes not just one but two distinct Denisovan lineages, which had been separated from each other for hundreds of thousands of years. In fact, one of those Denisovan lineages is so different from the other that they might even be considered an entirely new group of archaic hominins.

The findings are based on a new study led by Murray Cox from Massey University in New Zealand and made possible by sampling efforts led by Herawati Sudoyo from the Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology in Jakarta, Indonesia. The data were collected and analyzed by an international team of researchers, including Mark Stoneking from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Taken together with previous work - which has pointed to a third Denisovan lineage in the genomes of modern Siberians, Native Americans, and East Asians - the evidence "suggests that modern humans interbred with multiple Denisovan populations, which were geographically isolated from each other over deep evolutionary time," the researchers write.

The new evidence also unexpectedly shows extra mixing between Papuans and one of the two Denisovan groups, suggesting that this group actually lived in New Guinea or its adjacent islands. Moreover, Denisovans may have lived in the area until as recently as 30,000 years ago, making them one of the last surviving groups of archaic hominins. "People used to think that Denisovans lived on the Asian mainland and far to the north," says Cox. "Our work instead shows that the center of archaic diversity was not in Europe or the frozen north, but instead in tropical Asia." Stoneking adds, "Moreover, this archaic diversity seems to have persisted much longer in Island Southeast Asia and New Guinea than elsewhere in the world."

It had already been clear that Island Southeast Asia and New Guinea was a special place, with individuals there carrying more archaic hominin DNA than anywhere else on Earth. The region was also recognized as key to the early evolution of Homo sapiens outside Africa. But there were gaps in the story.

Divergent Denisovan lineages

To help fill those gaps, the team identified stretches of archaic DNA from 161 new genomes spanning 14 island groups in Island Southeast Asia and New Guinea. Their analyses uncovered large stretches of DNA that did not jibe with a single introgression of genes from Denisovans into humans in the region. Instead, they report, modern Papuans carry hundreds of gene variants from two deeply divergent Denisovan lineages. In fact, they estimate that those two groups of Denisovans had been separated from one another for 350,000 years.

The new findings highlight how "incredibly understudied" this part of the world has been, the researchers say. To put it in context, many of the study's participants live in Indonesia, a country the size of Europe that is the 4th largest country in the world based on population size. And yet, apart from a handful of genome sequences reported in a global survey of genomic diversity in 2016, the new paper reports the first Indonesian genome sequences. There also has been a strong bias in studies of archaic hominins toward Europe and northern Eurasia, because DNA collected from ancient bones survives best in the cold north.

Missing data bias scientific interpretation

This lack of global representation in both ancient and modern genome data is well noted, the researchers say. "However, we don't think that people have really grasped just how much of a bias this puts on scientific interpretations - such as, here, the geographical distribution of archaic hominin populations," Cox says.

As fascinating as these new findings are, the researchers say their primary aim is to use this new genomic data to help improve healthcare for people in Island Southeast Asia. They say this first genome survey in the region now offers the baseline information needed to set that work in motion.

People from New Guinea and nearby islands carry evidence of ancestry from more than one group of Denisovans. Credit: © Mark Stoneking

Press release from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology


Homo luzonensis Philippines Luzon Island Philip Piper

New species of early human found in the Philippines

New species of early human found in the Philippines

Professor Philip Piper from the ANU School of Archaeology and Anthropology. Credit: Lannon Harley, ANU

An international team of researchers have uncovered the remains of a new species of human in the Philippines, proving the region played a key role in hominin evolutionary history. The new species, Homo luzonensis is named after Luzon Island, where the more than 50,000 year old fossils were found during excavations at Callao Cave.

Co-author and a lead member of the team, Professor Philip Piper from The Australian National University (ANU) says the findings represent a major breakthrough in our understanding of human evolution across Southeast Asia.

The researchers uncovered the remains of at least two adults and one juvenile within the same archaeological deposits.

"The fossil remains included adult finger and toe bones, as well as teeth. We also recovered a child's femur. There are some really interesting features - for example, the teeth are really small," Professor Piper said.

"The size of the teeth generally, though not always, reflect the overall body-size of a mammal, so we think Homo luzonensis was probably relatively small. Exactly how small we don't know yet. We would need to find some skeletal elements from which we could measure body-size more precisely" Professor Piper said.

"It's quite incredible, the extremities, that is the hand and feet bones are remarkably Australopithecine-like. The Australopithecines last walked the earth in Africa about 2 million years ago and are considered to be the ancestors of the Homo group, which includes modern humans.

"So, the question is whether some of these features evolved as adaptations to island life, or whether they are anatomical traits passed down to Homo luzonensis from their ancestors over the preceding 2 million years."

While there are still plenty of questions around the origins of Homo luzonensis, and their longevity on the island of Luzon, recent excavations near Callao Cave produced evidence of a butchered rhinoceros and stone tools dating to around 700,000 years ago.

"No hominin fossils were recovered, but this does provide a timeframe for a hominin presence on Luzon. Whether it was Homo luzonensis butchering and eating the rhinoceros remains to be seen," Professor Piper said.

"It makes the whole region really significant. The Philippines is made up of a group of large islands that have been separated long enough to have potentially facilitated archipelago speciation. There is no reason why archaeological research in the Philippines couldn't discover several species of hominin. It's probably just a matter of time."

Homo luzonensis shares some unique skeletal features with the famous Homo floresiensis or 'the hobbit', discovered on the island of Flores to the south east of the Philippine archipelago.

In addition, stone tools dating to around 200,000 years ago have been found on the island of Sulawesi, meaning that ancient hominins potentially inhabited many of the large islands of Southeast Asia.

###

The project team was led by Dr Armand Mijares of the University of the Philippines, and includes Dr. Florent Détroit of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris and researchers from the University of Bordeaux, Paul Sabatier University and the University of Poitiers in France, as well as Griffith University in Australia.

The research has been published in the journal Nature.

 

Homo luzonensis Philippines Luzon Island Philip Piper
Professor Philip Piper from the ANU School of Archaeology and Anthropology inspects the cast of a hominin third metatarsal discovered in 2007. The bone is from a new species of hominin. Credit: Lannon Harley, ANU

Press release from the Australian National University.