Inner Eurasia

Details of the history of inner Eurasia revealed by new study

Details of the history of inner Eurasia revealed by new study

Researchers combining genetics, archaeology, history and linguistics have gained new insights into the history of inner Eurasia, once a cultural and genetic crossroads connecting Europe and Asia

Inner Eurasia
Children from one of the Tajikistan communities included in the study. Credit: Elena Balanovska

An international team of researchers has combined archaeological, historical and linguistic data with genetic information from over 700 newly analyzed individuals to construct a more detailed picture of the history of inner Eurasia than ever before available. In a study published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, they found that the indigenous populations of inner Eurasia are very diverse in their genes, culture and languages, but divide into three groups that stretch across the area in east-west geographic bands.

Inner Eurasia, including areas of modern-day Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Mongolia, Russia, Tajikistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan, was once the cross-roads connecting Asia and Europe, and a major intersection for the exchange of culture, trade goods and genes in prehistory and historical periods, including the era of the famous Silk Road.

This vast area can also be divided into several distinct ecological regions that stretch in largely east-west bands across Inner Eurasia, consisting of the deserts at the southern edge of the region, the steppe in the central part, taiga forests further north, and tundra towards the Arctic region. The subsistence strategies used by indigenous groups in these regions largely correlate with the ecological zones, for example reindeer herding and hunting in the tundra region and nomadic pastoralism on the steppe.

Despite the long and important history of inner Eurasia, details about past migrations and interactions between groups are not always clear, especially in prehistory. "Inner Eurasia is a perfect place to investigate the relationship between environmental conditions and the pattern of human migration and mixture, as well as changes driven by cultural innovations such as the introduction of dairy pastoralism into the steppe," states Choongwon Jeong of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, co-first and senior author of the paper. In order to clarify our understanding of some of the nuances of the history of the region, an international team of researchers undertook an ambitious project to use modern and ancient DNA from a broad geographic range and time period, in concert with archaeological, linguistic and historical information, to clarify the relationships between the different populations. "A few ethnic groups were studied previously," comments Oleg Balanovsky from the Vavilov Institute of General Genetics in Moscow, also co-first author, "but we conducted more than a hundred field trips to study this vast region systematically, and reached communities speaking almost all of the Inner Eurasian languages".

Three distinct east-west groupings

For this study, the researchers analyzed DNA from 763 individuals from across the region as well as reanalyzed the genome-wide data from two ancient individuals from the Botai culture, and compared those results with previously published data from modern and ancient individuals. They found three distinct genetic groupings, which geographically are arranged in east-west bands stretching across the region and correlating generally to ecological zones, where populations within each band share a distinct combination of ancestries in varying proportions.

The northernmost grouping, which they term "forest-tundra", includes Russians, all Uralic language-speakers, which includes Hungarian, Finnish and Estonian, and Yeniseian-language speakers, of which only one remains today and is spoken in central Siberia. The middle grouping, which they term "steppe-forest", includes Turkic- and Mongolic-speaking populations from the Volga and the region around the Altai and Sayan mountains, near to where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan meet. The southernmost grouping, "southern-steppe", includes the rest of Turkic- and Mongolic-speaking populations living further south, such as Kazakhs, Kyrgyzs and Uzbeks, as well as Indo-European-speaking Tajiks.

Previously unknown genetic connections revealed

Because the study includes data from a broad time period, it is able to show shifts in ancestry in the past that reveal previously unknown interactions. For example, the researchers found that the southern-steppe populations had a larger genetic component from West and South Asia than the other two groupings. This component is also widespread in the ancient populations of the region since the second half of the first millennium BC, but not found in Central Kazakhstan in earlier periods. This hints at a population movement from the southern-steppe region to the steppe-forest region that was previously unknown.

"Inner Eurasia has functioned as a conduit for human migration and cultural transfer since the first appearance of modern humans in this region. As a result, we observe deep sharing of genes between Western and Eastern Eurasian populations in multiple layers," explains Jeong. "The opportunity to find direct evidence for the hidden old layers of admixture, which is often difficult to appreciate from present-day populations, is very exciting."

"We found not only corridors, but also barriers for migrations," adds Balanovsky. "Some of them separate the historical groups of populations, while others, like the distinct barrier following the Great Caucasus mountain ridge, were obviously shaped by the geographic landscape."

Geographic locations of the Eneolithic Botai, groups including newly sampled individuals, and nearby groups with published data. The map is overlayed with ecoregional information, divided into 14 biomes downloaded from https://ecoregions2017.appspot.com/ (credited to Ecoregions 2017 © Resolve). Credit: Jeong & Balanovsky et. al. 2019. The genetic history of admixture across inner Eurasia. Nature Ecology & Evolution, http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41559-019-0878-2.

Two ancient individuals resequenced in this study originated from the Botai culture in Kazakhstan where the horse was initially domesticated. Analysis of the Y-chromosome (inherited along the paternal genealogical lines) revealed a genetic lineage which is typical in the Kazakh steppe up to the present day. But analysis of the autosomes, which both parents contribute to their children, show no trace of Botai ancestry left in present-day people, likely due to repeated migrations into the region both from the west and the east since the Bronze Age.

The researchers emphasize that their model of three groupings does not perfectly explain all known populations and that there are examples of both outliers and intermediate groups. "It is important to organize a future study for further sampling of sparsely populated regions between the clines, for example, Central Kazakhstan or East Siberia," states Johannes Krause, also of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, and senior author of the paper.

Researchers from the study conducting field work along the Amur River. Credit: Yuri Bogunov

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


Mysterious volcanic ash layer from 29,000 years ago traced to volcano in Naples

Mysterious volcanic ash layer from 29,000 years ago traced to volcano in Naples

Researchers from the University of Oxford have traced the origin of a pre-historic eruption that blanketed the Mediterranean region in ash 29,000 years ago to Naples' lesser-known volcano Campi Flegrei, located immediately to the west of the city.

Since the late 1970s scientists have identified the same pre-historic volcanic ash layer in sediment cores extracted from sites ranging across 150,000 square kilometres of the central Mediterranean. This widespread ash layer, dated at 29,000 years ago, blanketed the region and clearly indicated a large volcanic eruption. Whilst the region is well known for its many active volcanoes, such as Mount Vesuvius which famously destroyed Pompeii in 79 AD, scientists had failed to confidently match this older, far-ranging ash deposit to a specific volcano or eruption.

The research, led by Dr Paul Albert, a Research Fellow in the School of Archaeology, has now identified an ash rich-eruption deposit within the city of Naples which was produced by Campi Flegrei volcano and has a chemical composition that matches the prehistoric ash layer traced across the Mediterranean region. The work was done in partnership with international researchers, including those from the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV), the National Research Council in Italy, the Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l'Environnement in France, and the Berkeley Geochronology Centre in the USA.

"Part of the challenge of reliably attributing this major ash fall event to Campi Flegrei volcano has been that there is limited evidence for a large eruption close to the volcano," says Albert. "This is in part because a more recent large-scale eruption of the volcano buried the Naples area in a thick ash deposit, largely destroying or concealing the evidence of this older event," says Albert.

The team used a computer-based ash dispersal model to reconstruct the size of the eruption. "By linking the thickness of the ash deposits found in Naples, to those preserved in cores from across the central Mediterranean, the model was able to demonstrate and provide important constraints on the size of this large magnitude eruption," says Albert.

This research positions the timing of this previously un-reported large-scale eruption of Campi Flegrei between two well-known large-scale eruptions of the volcano, at 15,000 and 40,000 years ago, drastically reducing the reoccurrence interval of large magnitude eruptions at the volcano.

The research, published today in the journal Geology, also highlights the importance of considering ash fall events preserved well away from the volcano when reconstructing the timing and scale of past explosive eruptions. "Ash fall preserved hundreds of kilometers away from the volcano has been critical here in the identification and reconstruction of this large eruption at Campi Flegrei," says Albert.

Campi Flegrei Phlegrean Fields Naples Mediterranean Sea
I Campi Flegrei dall'Eremo dei Camaldoli. Foto di Baku, CC BY-SA 4.0

Press release from the University of Oxford


Amazonia Llanos de Moxos Bolivia agriculture

Human settlements in Amazonia much older than previously thought

Human settlements in Amazonia much older than previously thought

Amazonia Llanos de Moxos Bolivia agriculture
An endless watery plain characterizes the Llanos. Picture by Sam Beebe, CC BY-SA 2.0

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Humans settled in southwestern Amazonia and even experimented with agriculture much earlier than previously thought, according to an international team of researchers.

"We have long been aware that complex societies emerged in Llanos de Moxos in southwestern Amazonia, Bolivia, around 2,500 years ago, but our new evidence suggests that humans first settled in the region up to 10,000 years ago during the early Holocene period," said Jose Capriles, assistant professor of anthropology. "These groups of people were hunter gatherers; however, our data show that they were beginning to deplete their local resources and establish territorial behaviors, perhaps driving them to begin domesticating plants such as sweet potatoes, cassava, peanuts and chili peppers as a way to acquire food."

The archaeological team conducted its study on three forest islands -- Isla del Tesoro, La Chacra and San Pablo -- within the seasonally flooded savanna of the Llanos de Moxos in northern Bolivia.

"These islands are elevated above the surrounding savanna, so they do not flood during the rainy season," said Capriles. "We believe people were using these sites recurrently as seasonal camps, particularly during the long rainy seasons when most of the Llanos de Moxos become flooded."

The team's excavations of the forest islands revealed human skeletons that had been intentionally buried in a manner unlike that of typical hunter gatherers and instead were more akin to the behaviors of complex societies -- characterized by political hierarchy and the production of food. Their results appear today in Science Advances.

"If these were highly mobile hunter gatherers you would not expect for them to bury their dead in specific places; instead, they would leave their dead wherever they died," said Capriles.

Capriles noted that it is rare to find human or even archaeological remains that predate the use of fired pottery in the region.

"The soils tend to be very acidic, which often makes the preservation of organic remains very poor," he said. "Also, organic matter deteriorates quickly in tropical environments and this region completely lacks any type of rock for making stone tools, so even those are not available to study."

According to Umberto Lombardo, earth scientist at the University of Bern, when the researchers first published their discovery of these archaeological sites in 2013, they had to base their conclusions on indirect evidence -- mostly geochemical analyses -- rather than direct evidence such as artifacts.

"Because of the lack of direct evidence many archaeologists were skeptical about our findings," said Lombardo. "They did not really believe that those forest islands were early Holocene archaeological sites. The current study provides strong and definitive evidence of the anthropocentric origin of these sites, because the archaeological excavations uncovered early Holocene human burials. These are the definitive proof of the antiquity and origin of these sites."

Capriles noted that the human bones on these forest islands were preserved despite the poor conditions because they were encased within middens -- or trash heaps -- containing abundant fragments of shell, animal bones and other organic remains.

"These people were foraging apple snails during the wet season and disposing of the shells in large heaps, called middens," said Capriles. "Over time, water dissolved the calcium carbonate from the shells and those carbonates precipitated over the bones, effectively fossilizing them."

Because the human bones were fossilized, the team was unable to date them directly using radiocarbon dating. Instead, they used radiocarbon dating of associated charcoal and shell as a proxy for estimating the time range that the sites were occupied.

"The abundant remains of burned earth and wood suggests that the people were using fire, likely to clear land, cook food and keep warm during long rainy days," said Capriles.

According to Capriles, a gap exists between the people his team studied who lived on the forest islands between 10,000 and 4,000 years ago and the rise of complex societies, which began around 2,500 years ago.

"This paper represents the first step in the effort to learn more about the people who inhabited southwestern Amazonia for thousands of years but we know nothing about," said Lombardo.

Capriles added, "Are the people we found direct predecessors of those later, more complex societies? There are still questions to be answered and we hope to do so in future research."

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ancient hearths fire Neanderthal settlements Paleolithic

Modern analysis of ancient hearths reveals Neanderthal settlement patterns

Modern analysis of ancient hearths reveals Neanderthal settlement patterns

Microscopic and molecular evidence at paleolithic hearth sites helps uncover Neanderthal mobility habits

ancient hearths fire Neanderthal settlements Paleolithic
Field photograph of Neanderthal combustion structure and microscope photograph of organic components in the black layer of the combustion structure. Credit: Leierer et al, 2019. CC-BY

Ancient fire remains provide evidence of Neanderthal group mobility and settlement patterns and indicate specific occupation episodes, according to a new study published in PLOS ONE on April 24, 2019 by Lucia Leierer and colleagues from Universidad de La Laguna, Spain.

Most paleolithic household activities are thought to have taken place around hearths or fires. The author of the present study chose to examine the Middle Paleolithic site El Salt in Spain, which contains eleven well-preserved and overlapping open-air hearth structures. It was previously unclear whether these hearths were formed during successive short-term site occupations or fewer, longer term occupations. The authors examined the micromorphology of the different layers within the hearth structures to assess occupation timings within the study unit and conducted both a lipid biomarker analysis and isotope analysis to gain information about potential food and fuel.

The results of the analyses show stratified hearths built on multiple different topsoils over different periods of time. The burned organic matter present at the El Salt hearths is rich in herbivore excrement and flowering plant residues. The presence of flint and bone shards, as well as conifer wood charcoal collected from trees not present at the site, provide evidence of limited activity at the site. The authors suggest these data indicate at least four successive short-term Neanderthal occupations separated by relatively long periods of time, potentially based around the seasons.

The authors suggest their molecular and micromorphological methods would work well at similar paleolithic sites where fires were built. Their findings provide evidence for successive short-term Neanderthal occupations at this site, and could inform our understanding of Neanderthal group mobility and settlement more generally.

Leierer adds: "Micromorphology combined with lipid biomarker analysis is a powerful approach to investigate anthropogenic combustion-related archaeological contexts from a microstratigraphic perspective which can contribute valuable information on the timing and intensity of Neanderthal occupations as well as the natural setting of the site. These are key factors of group mobility and settlement patterns."

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From hunting to herding in the Early Neolithic settlement of Aşıklı Höyük

Switch from hunting to herding recorded in ancient pee

Urine salts reveal timing and scale of neolithic revolution at Turkish site

Study authors Jay Quade (left) and Jordan Abell (right) looking for optimal samples at the site of an ancient Turkish settlement where salts left behind by animal and human urine give clues about the development of livestock herding. Credit: Güneş Duru

The transition from hunting and gathering to farming and herding is considered a crucial turning point in the history of humanity. Scholars think the intensive food production that came along with the Neolithic Revolution, starting around 10,000 B.C., allowed cities to grow, led to technological innovation and, eventually, enabled life as we know it today.

It has been difficult to work out the details of how and when this took place. But a new study published in Science Advances begins to resolve the scale and pace of change during the first phases of animal domestication at an ancient site in Turkey. To reconstruct this history, the authors turned to an unusual source: urine salts left behind by humans and animals.

Whereas dung is commonly used in all sorts of studies, “this is the first time, to our knowledge, that people have picked up on salts in archaeological materials, and used them in a way to look at the development of animal management,” says lead author Jordan Abell, a graduate student at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

The team used the urine salts to calculate the density of humans and animals at the site over time, estimating that around 10,000 years ago, the density of people and animals occupying the settlement jumped from near zero to approximately one person or animal for every 10 square meters. The results suggest that domestication may have been more rapid than previously expected. They also support the idea that the Neolithic Revolution didn’t have just one birthplace in the Fertile Crescent of the Mideast, but rather occurred across several locations simultaneously.

Connecting the Dots

At the ancient settlement of Aşıklı Höyük in central Turkey, archaeological evidence suggests that humans began domesticating sheep and goats around 8450 BC. These practices evolved over the next 1,000 years, until the society became heavily dependent on the beasts for food and other materials.

Students working on the western Section of Aşıklı Höyük, where the evidence was found. Credit: Güneş Duru

As it happened, co-authors Susan Mentzer from the University of Tübingen and Jay Quade from the University of Arizona, where Abell worked on this project as an undergraduate, had previously documented some unusually high levels of salts around Aşıklı Höyük, and were perplexed by what they meant. Using this data and others, the new study supports the idea that the salts likely came from the urine of humans, sheep and goats. The study uses the abundance of the salts over time to track the growth of the community and its animals over a period of 1,000 years.

A Rapid Transition

Working with Turkish archaeologists, including Istanbul University’s Mihriban Özbaşaran, who heads the Aşıklı Höyük dig, the team collected 113 samples from all across the site — from trash piles to bricks and hearths, and from different time periods — to look at patterns in the sodium, nitrate and chlorine salt levels.

They found that, overall, the urine salts at Aşıklı Höyük increased in abundance over time. The natural layers before the settlement was built contained very low levels of salts. The oldest layers with evidence of human habitation, spanning 10,400 to 10,000 years ago, saw slight increases but remained relatively low in the urine salts. Then the salts spike during a period from 10,000 to 9,700 years ago; the amount of salts in this layer is about 1,000 times higher than in the preceding ones, indicating a rapid increase in the number of occupants (both human and animal). After that, the concentrations decrease slightly.

Abell says these trends line up with previous hypotheses based on other evidence from the site — that the settlement transitioned first from mostly hunting sheep and goats to corralling just a few, then changed to larger-scale management, and then finally shifted to keeping animals in corrals on the periphery of the site as their numbers grew. And although the timing is close to what the study authors expected, the sharp change around 10,000 years ago “may be new evidence for a more rapid transition” toward domestication, says Abell.

Using the salt concentrations, the team estimated the number and density of people plus sheep and goats at Aşıklı Höyük, after accounting for other factors that might have influenced the salt levels. They calculated that around 10,000 years ago, the density of people and animals occupying the settlement jumped from near zero to approximately one person or animal for every 10 square meters. By comparison, modern-day semi-intensive feedlots have densities of about one sheep for every 5 square meters.

Although it is not currently possible to distinguish between human and livestock urine salts, the urine salt analysis method can still provide a helpful estimate of sheep and goat abundance. Over the 1,000 year period, the team calculated that an average of 1,790 people and animals lived and peed on the settlement every day. In each time period, the estimated inhabitants were much higher than the number of people that archaeologists think the settlement’s buildings would have housed. This indicates that the urine salt concentrations can indeed reflect the relative amounts of domesticated animals over time.

Aşıklı Höyük Turkey Neolithic Revolution
View from the rooftops of reconstructed Aşıklı Höyük houses from the 8th and 9th century BC. Credit: Güneş Duru

The researchers plan to further refine their methods and calculations in the future, and hope to find a way to differentiate between human and animal urine salts. They think the methodology could be applied in other arid areas, and could be especially helpful at sites where other physical evidence, such as bones, is lacking.

A Broader Revolution

The study’s results also help shed light on the geographic spread of the Neolithic Revolution. It was once thought that farming and herding originated in the Fertile Crescent, which spans parts of modern-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Territories, then spread outward from there. But mounting evidence, including today’s study, indicates that domestication and the transition to Neolithic lifestyles took place concurrently over a broad and diffuse swath of the region.

Anthropologist and co-author Mary Stiner from the University of Arizona said that the new method could help to clarify the larger picture of humanity’s relationship to animals during this transitional period. “We might find similar trends in other archaeological sites of the period in the Middle East,” she said, “but it is also possible that only a handful of long-lasting communities were forums for the evolving human-caprine relationships in any given region of the Middle East.”

Güneş Duru and Melis Uzdurum from Istanbul University were also authors on the paper.

 

Press release from the Earth Institute at the Columbia University, by Sarah Fecht

 

Urine salts provide evidence of Early Neolithic animal management

Urine salts elucidate Early Neolithic animal management at Aşıklı Höyük, Turkey

A close examination of midden soil layers at the early Neolithic site of Aşıklı Höyük in Turkey reveals that they are highly enriched in sodium, chlorine, and nitrate salts commonly found in human and goat and sheep urine, offering a distinct signal for following the management of those animals through the history of the site. The findings, along with an enriched nitrogen signal in the soil, suggest a new way for archaeologists to study the evolution of animal management at this critical point in human history, at similarly dry, thickly stratified sites that may not contain other domestication evidence such as animal bones or dung, or the presence of corrals or other animal enclosures. Jordan Abell and colleagues used several techniques to identify these soluble urine salts and to distinguish them from natural geological salt deposition at Aşıklı Höyük. The researchers found a 5-10 times increase in these salts between about 10,400 BP to 10,000 BP, and a 10-1000 times increase between 10,400 and 9,700 BP, demonstrating increasing reliance upon and eventual domestication of sheep and goats over this time. Based on these salt concentrations, Abell et al. estimate that about 1,790 humans and animals lived and urinated on the site per day for roughly 1,000 years of occupation. High soluble nitrogen levels in the trash heaps of the site are similar to those seen in modern feedlots, the researchers note.

Press release from the American Association for the Advancement of Science


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


Megalith tombs were family graves in European Stone Age

Megalith tombs were family graves in European Stone Age

In a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, an international research team, led from Uppsala University, discovered kin relationships among Stone Age individuals buried in megalithic tombs on Ireland and in Sweden. The kin relations can be traced for more than ten generations and suggests that megaliths were graves for kindred groups in Stone Age northwestern Europe.

Agriculture spread with migrants from the Fertile Crescent into Europe around 9,000 BCE, reaching northwestern Europe by 4,000 BCE. Starting around 4,500 BCE, a new phenomenon of constructing megalithic monuments, particularly for funerary practices, emerged along the Atlantic façade. These constructions have been enigmatic to the scientific community, and the origin and social structure of the groups that erected them has remained largely unknown. The international team sequenced and analysed the genomes from the human remains of 24 individuals from five megalithic burial sites, encompassing the widespread tradition of megalithic construction in northern and western Europe.

The team collected human remains of 24 individuals from megaliths on Ireland, in Scotland and the Baltic island of Gotland, Sweden. The remains were radiocarbon-dated to between 3,800 and 2,600 BCE. DNA was extracted from bones and teeth for genome sequencing. The team compared the genomic data to the genetic variation of Stone Age groups and individuals from other parts of Europe. The individuals in the megaliths were closely related to Neolithic farmers in northern and western Europe, and also to some groups in Iberia, but less related to farmer groups in central Europe.

Paternal continuity through time

The team found an overrepresentation of males compared to females in the megalith tombs on the British Isles. Credit: Göran Burenhult

The team found an overrepresentation of males compared to females in the megalith tombs on the British Isles.

"We found paternal continuity through time, including the same Y-chromosome haplotypes reoccurring over and over again," says archaeogeneticist Helena Malmström of Uppsala University and co-first author. "However, female kindred members were not excluded from the megalith burials as three of the six kinship relationships in these megaliths involved females."

A likely parent-offspring relation was discovered for individuals in the Listhogil Tomb at the Carrowmore site and Tomb 1 at Primrose Grange, about 2 km distance away from each other. Credit: Göran Burenhult

The genetic data show close kin relationships among the individuals buried within the megaliths. A likely parent-offspring relation was discovered for individuals in the Listhogil Tomb at the Carrowmore site and Tomb 1 at Primrose Grange, about 2 km distance away from each other. "This came as a surprise. It appears as these Neolithic societies were tightly knit with very close kin relations across burial sites," says population-geneticist Federico Sanchez-Quinto of Uppsala University and co-first author.

The Ansarve tomb was used by distinct groups

Megalith tombs Ansarve site Listhogil site Primrose Grange Carrowmore site archaeogenetics
The Ansarve site on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea is embedded in an area with mostly hunter-gathers at the time. Credit: Magdalena Fraser

The Ansarve site on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea is embedded in an area with mostly hunter-gathers at the time. "The people buried in the Ansarve tomb are remarkably different on a genetic level compared to the contemporaneous individuals excavated from hunter-gather-contexts, showing that the burial tradition in this megalithic tomb, which lasted for over 700 years, was performed by distinct groups with roots in the European Neolithic expansion," says archaeogeneticist Magdalena Fraser of Uppsala University and co-first author.

"That we find distinct paternal lineages among the people in the megaliths, an overrepresentation of males in some tombs, and the clear kindred relationships point to towards the individuals being part of a patrilineal segment of the society rather than representing a random sample from a larger Neolithic farmer community," says Mattias Jakobsson, population-geneticist at Uppsala University and senior author of the study.

"Our study demonstrates the potential in archaeogenetics to not only reveal large-scale migrations, but also inform about Stone Age societies and the role of particular phenomena in those times such as the megalith phenomena," says Federico Sanchez-Quinto.

"The patterns that we observe could be unique to the Primrose, Carrowmore, and Ansarve burials, and future studies of other megaliths are needed to tell whether this is a general pattern for megalith burials," says osteoarchaeologist Jan Storå of Stockholm University.

 

 

Publication

Sánchez-Quinto et al. (2019) Megalithic tombs in western and northern Neolithic Europe were linked to a kindred society, PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1818037116 (Open access)
www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1818037116

Facts

This study is part of the Atlas project, a multidisciplinary effort to understand Eurasian and Scandinavian prehistory, funded by Riksbankens Jubileumsfond and the Knut and Alice Wallenberg foundation.

Press release from Uppsala University, by Linda Koffmar.


Portuguese crowberry seeds Corema album Cova de les Cendres Alicante

The finding of Portuguese crowberry seeds in a cave in Alicante confirms its consumption in the Upper Palaeolithic

The finding of Portuguese crowberry seeds in a cave in Alicante confirms its consumption in the Upper Palaeolithic

Portuguese crowberry seeds Corema album Cova de les Cendres Alicante
Cristina Real, Ernestina Badal, Carmen M. Martinez and Villaverde

Carmen María Martínez, researcher at the University of Valencia, leads a study that reveals the consumption during the Upper Paleolithic of Portuguese crowberry (Corema album) fruits, which is currently endangered in the Mediterranean with a few specimens in the Serra Gelada. Published in the Quaternary Science Reviews magazine, the work on samples found in the Cova de les Cendres (Teulada-Moraira, Alicante) confirms the increase in aridity and sea level fluctuations at the time.

“This is one of the most important Palaeolithic sites on the peninsular Mediterranean façade. The excellent preservation conditions have allowed the recovery of an abundant archaeobotanical record from which light is shed on the collection of vegetables by the human groups that frequented the cavity and on the landscape they inhabited”, according to Ernestina Badal, Cristina Real, Valentín Villaverde, Dídac Roman and Carmen María Martínez, from the PREMEDOC-GIUV2015-213 research group of the Department of Prehistory, Archaeology and Ancient History. The Centre for Forest Research and Experimentation (CIEF) and the Polytechnic University of Valencia (UPV) have also participated in the work.

Hunter-gatherers who frequented the Cova de les Cendres not only collected these fruits, but also managed the vegetation and avoided using the plants from which they obtained food as fuel. Thus, no remaining charcoal from the more than 8,500 fragments analysed in the study has been documented. The Upper Paleolithic began about 35,000 years ago and is the period in which Homo sapiens sapiens arrived in Europe. It is characterised by the specialisation in hunting, the increase in the processing of plant foods and the diversification of tools.

The Portuguese crowberry fruits played a key role in human nutrition due to its high content of vitamin C, potassium, calcium and magnesium, according to the analysis carried out by the researcher in agrobiodiversity of the UPV Maria Dolores Raigón, since a diet based only on animal protein causes health problems. Its high nutritional value and the abundant presence of seeds suggest that there was a systematic collection of these fruits.

“The current distribution of this plant is limited to the coastal dunes of the peninsular Atlantic coast, but it has a single Mediterranean population of 11 individuals in the Serra Gelada (Benidorm), which is considered endangered by the Valencian Species Catalogue of Threatened Flora and it is believed that it is a relic of the existing population in the Cova de les Cendres”, highlight P. Pablo Ferrer, Inma Ferrando and Emilio Laguna from the CIEF. The causes of its disappearance point to a strong impact due to the increase in aridity during the maximum glacial period that took place some 20,000 years ago and to the destruction of its habitat due to the subsequent fluctuations in sea level.

Information on the collection of plants in Europe is scarce due to plant remains preservation problems in archaeological sites. These (coal, seeds, fruits and leaves) provide information on how humans lived at the time, the climate, how the landscape was modelled and the presence of different types of vegetation.

The data collected through archaeobotanical analysis show changes in regional biodiversity and could be useful for the design of environmental management policies and current and future biodiversity conservation strategies. According to the team, an interdisciplinary research is needed from Botany, Archaeology and other areas, working together to understand how ecosystems have changed over time, how humans have had to adapt to these changes and how their activities have altered the territory.

The Centre for Forestry Research and Experimentation (CIEF) and the Institute for the Conservation and Improvement of Valencian Agrobiodiversity of the Polytechnic University of Valencia participated in this study. It has been funded by the Universitat de València through the pre-doctoral grant Atracció del Talent, the Valencian Government with the PROMETEU program and the Ministry of Science and Innovation.

Article: C. M. Martínez-Varea et al.: «Corema album archaeobotanical remains in western Mediterranean basin. Assessing fruit consumption during Upper Palaeolithic in Cova de les Cendres (Alicante, Spain)». Quaternary Science Reviews 207 (2019) 1-12. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quascirev.2019.01.004

 

 

Press release from Asociación RUVID / ES


bison

Archaeologists identify first prehistoric figurative cave art in Balkans

Archaeologists identify first prehistoric figurative cave art in Balkans

Paleolithic figurative cave art rock art Romualdova Pećina
Composite of digital tracings of 1, Bison 2, Ibex and 3, possible anthropomorphic figures, from cave art. Credit: Aitor Ruiz-Redondo

An international team, led by an archaeologist from the University of Southampton and the University of Bordeaux, has revealed the first example of Palaeolithic figurative cave art found in the Balkan Peninsula.

Dr Aitor Ruiz-Redondo worked with researchers from the universities of Cantabria (Spain), Newfoundland (Canada), Zagreb (Croatia) and the Archaeological Museum of Istria (Croatia) to study the paintings, which could be up to 34,000 years old.

The cave art was first discovered in 2010 in Romualdova Pećina ('Romuald's cave') at Istria in Croatia, when Darko Komšo, Director of the Archaeological Museum of Istria, noticed the existence of the remains of a red colour in a deep part of the cave.

Following his discovery, the team led by Dr Ruiz-Redondo and funded by the French State and the Archaeological Museum of Istria, with the support of Natura Histrica, undertook a detailed analysis of the paintings and their archaeological context.

Paleolithic figurative cave art rock art Romualdova Pećina ibex
Digital tracing of Ibex featured in rock art. Credit: Aitor Ruiz-Redondo

This led to the identification of several figurative paintings, including a bison, an ibex and two possible anthropomorphic figures, confirming the Palaeolithic age of the artworks. Furthermore, an excavation made in the ground below these paintings led to the discovery of a number of Palaeolithic age remains; a flint tool, an ochre crayon and several fragments of charcoal.

Radiocarbon dating of these objects show an estimated age of around 17,000 years and other indirect data suggest the paintings date to an even earlier period - at around 34,000-31,000 years ago. Further research will be conducted in order to establish the precise age of the rock art.

Findings are published in the journal Antiquity.

This discovery expands the so far sparse register of Palaeolithic art in south east Europe. It makes Romualdova Pećina the first site where figurative Palaeolithic rock art has been discovered in this area. Together with Badanj in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the two are the only examples of rock art from the Palaeolithic period in the Balkans.

Dr Aitor Ruiz-Redondo, a British Academy-funded Newton International Fellow at the University of Southampton and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bordeaux, said: "The importance of this finding is remarkable and sheds a new light on the understanding of Palaeolithic art in the territory of Croatia and the Balkan Peninsula, as well as its relationship with simultaneous phenomena throughout Europe."

A new project started by Dr Ruiz-Redondo and his team, funded by the British Academy, will develop further research at these two sites during the next few years.

Paleolithic figurative cave art rock art Romualdova Pećina bison
Digital tracing of Bison featured in rock art. Credit: Aitor Ruiz-Redondo

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