The shoulders of 'Homo antecessor' and modern humans are similar

The shoulders of 'Homo antecessor' and modern humans are similar

The CENIEH has published a paper in the journal Scientific Reports which concludes that Homo antecessor had a shoulder development analogous to that in H. sapiens, although its growth was faster
Homo antecessor shoulders
Homo antecessor scapulae. Credits: D. Garcia Martínez et al

The shape of our shoulders was already present in the Lower Pleistocene, according to a pioneering study published today in the journal Scientific Reports, carried out by Daniel García Martínez and José María Bermúdez de Castro, paleoanthropologists at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), in collaboration with David Green of Campbell University (USA).

Studying the shoulder (technically known as the "shoulder girdle") furnishes information on points significant for human evolution such as locomotion, body shape, the possibility of climbing with ease or the ability to launch objects like stones or spears with high accuracy.

The authors of this work were able to study for the first time shoulder growth and development in the species Homo antecessor, dated to 850,000 years old, using tools from virtual anthropology and 3D geometric morphometry. The results show that the course of development of the shoulder in this species was very similar to that in H. sapiens, although the growth might have been faster.

Almost one million years ago, our evolution had already attained almost all the biomechanical capacities characterizing the shoulder in modern humans, and it had definitively parted ways from the abilities still then retained by the more archaic species of the human phylogeny, including climbing with great agility.

 To verify the changes undergone by this part of our anatomy, we need a flat bone: the shoulder blade or scapula. But, as the authors of this study state, “The fossil record of our phylogeny contains barely a handful of these highly delicate bones, which has posed enormous difficulties to studying the growth and development of the shoulders during human evolution”.

Two key fossils

By good luck, at level TD6 of the Gran Dolina site, situated in the Sierra de Atapuerca (Burgos), two scapulae have been conserved: one from a child and the other from an individual of age equivalent to a modern adolescent. These fossils were recovered during the excavation in the first decade of the twenty-first century and belonged to the species H. antecessor.

“In an earlier study of these two fossils, it had been noticed that the morphology of the scapulae was similar to our own. But until now, the growth and development model for the shoulders had remained unknown, and this work has now allowed us to check that our shoulder girdle bones have undergone modifications in accordance with different capacities”, says Bermúdez de Castro.

Comparative study

With the scant information available, it was known that the scapulae of Australopithecus species were similar in some ways to those of chimpanzees or gorillas but were different from our own. “We know that the development of our most archaic ancestors was very similar to that of the anthropoid apes, and the morphology of their shoulders shows that they still retained the capacity to climb with ease. We, on the contrary, have lost this ability”, explains García Martínez.

Comparative of scapulae. Credits: D.García Martínez et al

To determine when our anatomical peculiarities arose, in addition to virtual anthropology and 3D geometric morphometry, the researchers used complex statistical methods to study the development of the shoulder girdle in the species H. antecessor, comparing it with other species from the Pliocene and Lower Pleistocene, such as Australopithecus sediba and A. afarensis. A very broad sample from H. sapiens and chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) was also used.

“This study shows that although there exist slight morphological differences between the scapulae of H. antecessor and H. sapiens, the former were much more similar to modern humans, to H. erectus and even to Australopithecus than to chimpanzees”, comments García Martínez.

With regard to how the scapulae grew, it was also seen that this was very different from what happens in chimpanzees, and comparable with H. sapiens. “However, it is true that the data seem to point to growth being more rapid in H. antecessor, as highlighted by the CENIEH research team on the basis of dental evidence”, emphasizes Bermúdez de Castro.

This paper lays the foundations for how the shoulder girdle developed in Lower Pleistocene species, and opens the door to new research studying shoulder development in fossil species, as it may become possible to expand the timeframe and study this development even in Pliocene species like the genus Australopithecus.

Full bibliographic information

García-Martínez, D., Green, D., Bermúdez de Castro, J.M. 2021. Evolutionary development of the Homo antecessor scapulae (Gran Dolina site, Atapuerca) suggests a modern-like development for Lower Pleistocene Homo. Scientific Reports. DOI: 10.1038/s41598-021-83039

 

Press release from CENIEH


DNA antico Caraibi

Ancient DNA retells story of Caribbean’s first people

Ancient DNA retells story of Caribbean’s first people

DNA antico Caraibi
Long Journey's End, (c) Merald Clark, for SIBA: Stone Interchanges in the Bahama Archipelago

The history of the Caribbean’s original islanders comes into sharper focus in a new Nature study that combines decades of archaeological work with advancements in genetic technology.

An international team led by Harvard Medical School’s David Reich analyzed the genomes of 263 individuals in the largest study of ancient human DNA in the Americas to date. The genetics trace two major migratory waves in the Caribbean by two distinct groups, thousands of years apart, revealing an archipelago settled by highly mobile people, with distant relatives often living on different islands.

Reich’s lab also developed a new genetic technique for estimating past population size, showing the number of people living in the Caribbean when Europeans arrived was far smaller than previously thought – likely in the tens of thousands, rather than the million or more reported by Columbus and his successors.

For archaeologist William Keegan, whose work in the Caribbean spans more than 40 years, ancient DNA offers a powerful new tool to help resolve longstanding debates, confirm hypotheses and spotlight remaining mysteries.

This “moves our understanding of the Caribbean forward dramatically in one fell swoop,” said Keegan, curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History and co-senior author of the study. “The methods David’s team developed helped address questions I didn’t even know we could address.”

Archaeologists often rely on the remnants of domestic life – pottery, tools, bone and shell discards – to piece together the past. Now, technological breakthroughs in the study of ancient DNA are shedding new light on the movement of animals and humans, particularly in the Caribbean where each island can be a unique microcosm of life.

While the heat and humidity of the tropics can quickly break down organic matter, the human body contains a lockbox of genetic material: a small, unusually dense part of the bone protecting the inner ear. Primarily using this structure, researchers extracted and analyzed DNA from 174 people who lived in the Caribbean and Venezuela between 400 and 3,100 years ago, combining the data with 89 previously sequenced individuals.

The team, which includes Caribbean-based scholars, received permission to carry out the genetic analysis from local governments and cultural institutions that acted as caretakers for the human remains. The authors also engaged representatives of Caribbean Indigenous communities in a discussion of their findings.

Two waves of people, thousands of years apart

The genetic evidence offers new insights into the peopling of the Caribbean. The islands’ first inhabitants, a group of stone tool-users, boated to Cuba about 6,000 years ago, gradually expanding eastward to other islands during the region’s Archaic Age. Where they came from remains unclear – while they are more closely related to Central and South Americans than to North Americans, their genetics do not match any particular Indigenous group. However, similar artifacts found in Belize and Cuba may suggest a Central American origin, Keegan said.

About 2,500-3,000 years ago, farmers and potters related to the Arawak-speakers of northeast South America established a second pathway into the Caribbean. Using the fingers of South America’s Orinoco River Basin like highways, they travelled from the interior to coastal Venezuela and pushed north into the Caribbean Sea, settling Puerto Rico and eventually moving westward. Their arrival ushered in the region’s Ceramic Age, marked by agriculture and the widespread production and use of pottery.

Over time, nearly all genetic traces of Archaic Age people vanished, except for a holdout community in western Cuba that persisted as late as European arrival. Intermarriage between the two groups was rare, with only three individuals in the study showing mixed ancestry.

Many present-day Cubans, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans are the descendants of Ceramic Age people, as well as European immigrants and enslaved Africans. But researchers noted only marginal evidence of Archaic Age ancestry in modern individuals.

“That’s a big mystery,” Keegan said. “For Cuba, it’s especially curious that we don’t see more Archaic ancestry.”

Changes in pottery styles not linked to new migrations

Some archaeologists pointed to dramatic shifts in Caribbean pottery styles as evidence of new migrations. But genetics show all of the styles were created by one group of people over time. These effigy vessels belong to the Saladoid pottery type, ornate and difficult to shape. Credits: Corinne Hofman and Menno Hoogland

During the Ceramic Age, Caribbean pottery underwent at least five marked shifts in style over 2,000 years. Ornate red pottery decorated with white painted designs gave way to simple, buff-colored vessels, while other pots were punctuated with tiny dots and incisions or bore sculpted animal faces that likely doubled as handles.

Some archaeologists pointed to these transitions as evidence for new migrations to the islands. But DNA tells a different story, suggesting all of the styles were developed by descendants of the people who arrived in the Caribbean 2,500-3,000 years ago, though they may have interacted with and taken inspiration from outsiders.

“That was a question we might not have known to ask had we not had an archaeological expert on our team,” said co-first author Kendra Sirak, a postdoctoral fellow in the Reich Lab. “We document this remarkable genetic continuity across changes in ceramic style. We talk about ‘pots vs. people,’ and to our knowledge, it’s just pots.”

Ancient DNA Caribbean Caribbeans
Archaeological research and ancient DNA technology can work hand in hand to illuminate past history in the Caribbean. This vessel, made between AD 1200-1500 in present-day Dominican Republic, shows a frog figure, associated with the goddess of fertility in Taino culture. Credits: Kristen Grace/Florida Museum

Genetics reveal family connections across islands

Highlighting the region’s interconnectivity, a study of male X chromosomes uncovered 19 pairs of “genetic cousins” living on different islands – people who share the same amount of DNA as biological cousins but may be separated by generations. In the most striking example, one man was buried in the Bahamas while his relative was laid to rest about 600 miles away in the Dominican Republic.

“Showing relationships across different islands is really an amazing step forward,” said Keegan, who added that shifting winds and currents can make passage between islands difficult. “I was really surprised to see these cousin pairings between islands.”

Uncovering such a high proportion of genetic cousins in a sample of fewer than 100 men is another indicator that the region’s total population size was small, said Reich, professor of genetics in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS and professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard.

“When you sample two modern individuals, you don’t often find that they’re close relatives,” he said. “Here, we’re finding relatives all over the place.”

Revising estimates of Caribbean population size

A technique developed by study co-author Harald Ringbauer, a postdoctoral fellow in the Reich Lab, used shared segments of DNA to estimate past population size, a method that could also be applied to future studies of ancient people. Ringbauer’s technique showed about 10,000 to 50,000 people were living on two of the Caribbean’s largest islands, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, shortly before European arrival. This falls far short of the million inhabitants Columbus described to his patrons, likely to impress them, Keegan said.

 

Later, 16th-century historian Bartolomé de las Casas claimed the region had been home to 3 million people before being decimated by European enslavement and disease. While this, too, was an exaggeration, the number of people who died as a result of colonization remains an atrocity, Reich said.

“This was a systematic program of cultural erasure. The fact that the number was not 1 million or millions of people, but rather tens of thousands, does not make that erasure any less significant,” he said.

For Keegan, collaborating with geneticists gave him the ability to prove some hypotheses he has argued for years – while upending others.

“At this point, I don’t care if I’m wrong or right,” he said. “It’s just exciting to have a firmer basis for reevaluating how we look at the past in the Caribbean. One of the most significant outcomes of this study is that it demonstrates just how important culture is in understanding human societies. Genes may be discrete, measurable units, but the human genome is culturally created.”


Daniel Fernandes of the University of Vienna and the University of Coimbra in Portugal was also co-first author of the study. Other co-senior authors are Alfredo Coppa of the Sapienza University of Rome, Mark Lipson of HMS and Harvard and Ron Pinhasi of the University of Vienna.

This work was funded by the National Geographic Society, National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health/National Institute of General Medical Sciences, Paul Allen Foundation, John Templeton Foundation and Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

 

Press release by Natalie van Hoose, from the Florida Museum of Natural History on ancient DNA shedding light on the first people in the Caribbean.


The temporal lobes of Homo erectus were proportionally smaller than in H. sapiens

The temporal lobes of Homo erectus were proportionally smaller than in H. sapiens

The CENIEH has contributed to a paleoneurological study published in the journal Quaternary International, on the brain of Homo erectus, which analyzes its temporal lobes and compares these with other species like H. ergaster and H. sapiens
temporal lobes erectus sapiens ergaster
Pearson at al.

Emiliano Bruner, a paleoneurologist at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), has participated in a study published in the journal Quaternary International, on the anatomy of the temporal lobes in the brain of Homo erectus, which establishes that they were proportionally smaller than in modern humans.

In H. sapiens, the temporal lobes are relatively more highly developed than in other primates, although little is known about their anatomy in extinct human species, because they are housed in a very delicate region of the cranium known as the middle cranial fossa, which is often not conserved in fossil individuals.

An earlier study by the same team had shown that the size of the middle cranial fossa can be used to deduce the volume of the temporal lobes. In this new study, three anatomical diameters were analyzed in fossils of H. erectus and H. ergaster, and compared with the corresponding measurements for 51 modern humans. The results suggest that both fossil species had temporal lobes proportionally smaller than in humans today.

Moreover, “The Asiatic individuals, namely Homo erectus, had larger temporal lobes than in the African ones, Homo ergaster, although the scanty fossil record does not allow us to tell whether this is due to chance or a paleoneurological difference between the two species”, says Bruner.

As the temporal lobe is a brain region involved in the integration of many cognitive functions, such as memory, the emotions, hearing, social relations and language, any change in their sizes or proportions is of transcendent importance, as this could reveal variations in the development of their neurons or their connections, and therefore in the cognitive functions associated to this region of the cerebral cortex.

This study has been conducted by Alannah Pearson, a doctoral student of Emiliano Bruner at the Australian National University in Canberra (Australia), in collaboration with Professor David Polly, of Indiana University (USA).

 

Full bibliographic information

Pearson, A., Polly, P. D., & Bruner, E. (2020). Temporal lobe evolution in Javanese Homo erectus and African Homo ergaster: inferences from the cranial base. Quaternary International (0). doi: 10.1016/j.quaint.2020.07.048.

 

Press release from CENIEH


Temple of Augustus Leptis Magna Surrey

The Temple of Augustus: an artificial landscape in Surrey

The Temple of Augustus: How ruins from Libya became the focal point of an artificial landscape in Surrey

Leptis Magna ruins to right of carriage path

 

Walking around the artificial lake of Virginia Water, past the artificial cascade, you come across the ‘Temple of Augustus’, another artificial addition to the royal landscapes of Surrey. But how did these Libyan ruins come to make up part of the grounds of Windsor Great Park?

Bridge adorned with cornice fragments

The city of Leptis Magna was founded in the 7th Century BC and rose to prominence in 193 AD under Emperor Septimius Severus who initiated a programme of enhancement through the provision of incredible docks, and a huge basilica complete with classical style columns. After his death in 211 the city began to decline, with the destructive tsunami of 365 and the invasion of the Vandals in the 5th Century.

1816, Hanmer Warrington arrived in Leptis Magna with friend, Augustus Earle. Only a few years earlier, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin had been hailed a hero by the British government on return from Greece with the stripped marble of the Parthenon, a response Warrington hoped to achieve with his presentation of the Leptis Magna ruins.

Louis XIV had taken 600 columns from the site and installed them in his palace in Versailles in the 17th century, whilst Rouen Cathedral and Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Preps in Paris also sported Leptis columns.

Upon commissioning ships and creating an agreement with the Local Governor, Warrington came across resistance of the local Libyan people. Not a conservation effort, but a local quarrying issue, they defied the removal of the ruins. Cut stone had often been collected from these sites to aid building work whilst round columns were used as mill stones. They took to destroying the collected ruins as they were being loaded onto ships, leading to 3 columns still lying on the beach, having been abandoned by Warrington’s team.

After the destruction was accounted for, Warrington collected a vast collection made up of 25 pedestals, 15 marble columns, 22 granite columns, 10 capitals, 5 inscribed slabs and fragments of stone and sculpture. On arrival in Britain he was met with an unenthusiastic government who it is said were not ‘at all impressed or convinced of the value, either aesthetic or intrinsic, of the cargo.’

Temple of Augustus
Leptis Magna ruins beyond the bridge

Having sat in the forecourt of the British Museum for 8 years, King George IV’s architect, Jeffry Wyatville expressed an interest in using them to create a folly in the grounds of Windsor Castle, which then stretched as far as Virginia Water.

Temple of Augustus
Part of the Temple of Augustus

Named the ‘Temple of Augustus’, possibly as a reference to the King’s full name, George Augustus Frederick, the site consisted of the 15 columns arranged in a semi-circle, and 2 parallel colonnades. Down the centre of the ruins ran a carriage road, allowing King George IV to pass under the road to Ascot. Wyatville placed fragments of cornices along the bridge mimicking an arch in a city wall.

Leptis Magna Ruins

Knowledge of the classics was important in high society, and the introduction of follies, ornamental ruins built to serve purely as landscape features, showed a level of class and sophistication. As William Gilpin, contemporary architect, noted about the importance of a fake authenticity, “if the ivy refuses to mantle over your buttress… you may as well write over the gate, Built in the year 1772.”

Temple of Augustus
Leptis Magna ruins to left of carriage path

 

All pictures taken by Scout Newby.

 

Bibliography

An Unusual Gift (2018) <exploringsurreyspast.org.uk> [accessed 25th July 2020].

Archaeological Site of Leptis Magna <whc.unesco.org> [accessed 25th July 2020].

Bovill, E.W., ‘Colonel Warrington’, The Geographical Journal, Vol.131 (1965), pp.161-166.

Chambers, G.E., ‘The Ruins at Virginia Water’, Berkshire Archaeological Journal, Vol.54 (1954), pp.39-52.

Cooper, P., ‘How Ancient Roman Ruins Ended up 2,000 Miles Away in a British Garden’, The Atlantic, 10th January 2018.

Earle, A., ‘Watercolour of The Ruins at Lebida (Leptis Magna), near Tripoli’, (1793-1838), RCIN 917055 <rct.uk/collection> [accessed 23rd July 2020].

Gilpin, W., Observations on Several Parts of England relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty (London; Strahan and Prefton, 1808), pp.69-75.

Sham Ruins’, Foll-e, Vol.45 (2012), pp.1-4.

Unknown, ‘The Leptis Magna ruins, Virginia Water’, (c.1865), RCIN 2923207 <rct.uk/collection> [accessed 22nd July 2020]

The Temple of Augustus (2019) <odddaysout.co.uk> [accessed 20th July 2020].

Lane, A., ‘The Ruins of Virginia Water’, Libyan Studies (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp.67-94.


First exhaustive analysis of use-wear traces on basalt tools from Olduvai

First exhaustive analysis of use-wear traces on basalt tools from Olduvai

The CENIEH leads an experimental study of the possible uses for tools made from basalts at Olduvai Gorge (Tanzania), by analyzing the relationships between the petrological characteristics of this raw material and the formation of use-wear traces
basalt tools Olduvai
Beta vulgaris processing during the experimental basalt program/P. Bello-Alonso

The Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución humana (CENIEH) has participated in an experimental study published recently in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, on the possible uses of tools fashioned from basalts, volcanic rocks that are highly abundant at the Olduvai Gorge sites in Tanzania, through the first exhaustive analysis of the relationships between the petrological characteristics of this raw material and the formation of use-wear traces.

In addition to providing elements of great significance for interpreting human behavior at Olduvai Gorge, the results of this research led by the archaeologist Patricia Bello-Alonso furnish a model which will enable comparative studies for lithic industry assemblages in volcanic rocks from different archaeological and geological contexts to be conducted.

“The results we have obtained are a fundamental resource for analyzing the ways stone tools were used at the archaeological sites located in Beds I and II, in general, and at the Thiongo Korongo (TK) site in particular as, in this area, volcanic rocks are one of the key raw materials for the technological and, therefore, evolutionary development of the different hominin groups that occupied Olduvai more than two million years ago”, explains Bello-Alonso.

Reference Collection

The main objective of the research, in which the Museo de Ciencia Naturales and the Instituto de Evolución Humana en África in Madrid also participated, was to determine how traces are formed in basalts at both the macro and micro scales, to enable their use to be identified. To do so, non-retouched flakes were employed and a wide variety of organic materials was worked upon: animal carcasses, tubers, wood, grass, cane and fresh bone.

“Carrying out these operations has allowed us to compile an experimental reference collection for greater understanding of the role played by the internal and chemical structure of basalts in the formation and development of use-wear traces”, she adds.

This multidisciplinary study, financed by the Ministerio de Ciencia, Innovación y Universidades (HAR2013-45246-C3-2-P and HAR2017-82463-C4-2-P), under the auspices of The Olduvai Paleonthropology and Paleoecology Project (TOPPP) on the Acheulean site of TK, led by the researchers Joaquín Panera and Manuel Santonja, was conducted at the Prehistoric Technology and Archaeology Laboratory of the CENIEH and the Emiliano Aguirre camp, at Olduvai Gorge itself.

Full bibliographic information

Bello-Alonso, P., Rios-Garaizar, J., Panera, J., Martín-Perea, D.M., Rubio-Jara, S., Pérez-González, A., Rojas-Mendoza, R., Domínguez-Rodrigo, M., Baquedano, E., y Santonja, M. Experimental approaches to the development of use-wear traces on volcanic rocks: basalts. Archaeol Anthropol Sci 12, 128 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12520-020-01058-6.
Press release from CENIEH on the basalt tools from Olduvai.

The settlement of Europe could be the result of several immigration waves by a single population

The settlement of Europe could be the result of several immigration waves by a single population

The CENIEH conducts the morphological and metric analysis of the lower molars in the mandible from Montmaurin-La Niche (France) using micro-computed tomography, to study the origin of the Neanderthals.
settlement Europe immigration population
Montmaurin-La Niche mandible/M. Martínez de Pinillos

The Dental Anthropology Group of the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), in collaboration with the paleoanthropologist Amélie Vialet of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle (MNHN) in Paris, has just published a detailed external and internal study of the molars in the mandible from the French site of Montmaurin-La Niche in the Journal of Human Evolution, whose results strengthen the hypothesis that the settlement of Europe could have been the result of several waves of migration at different times by a common source population.

The aim in this paper, led by the researchers Marina Martínez de Pinillos (CENIEH) and Laura Martín-Francés (CENIEH and PACEA-University of Bordeaux), is to shed light on the origin of the Neanderthals. The latest data obtained from paleontological and geomorphological studies place the Montmaurin-La Niche mandible in a chronologically intermediate position between the fossils of the Middle Pleistocene and the Neanderthals.

The micro-computed axial tomography (microCT) technique has enabled the molars in this mandible to be compared with the external and internal structures of over 400 other molars from the European, Asian and African Pleistocene and Holocene.

This exhaustive metric and morphological analysis has revealed that, while the mandible is more closely related to African and Eurasian populations from the Early and Middle Pleistocene, the enamel and dentine morphology and pulp cavity proportions are similar to those in Neanderthals. “Nevertheless, the absolute and relative enamel thickness values (2D and 3D) show greater affinity with those exhibited by certain Early Pleistocene hominins”, says Martínez de Pinillos.

Possible hybridization

Over recent decades, finds of human fossil remains from the European Middle Pleistocene have prompted the debate on the evolutionary scenario of the genus Homo on that continent to be reopened. “The great variability we find among the European Middle Pleistocene fossils cannot be ignored in studying human evolution on our continent”, states Martín-Francés.

This variability in European Middle Pleistocene populations could indicate different migrations at different times and/or fragmentation of the population, thought it might also be due to possible hybridization between residents and new settlers.

Montmaurin-La Niche mandible/M. Martínez de Pinillos

Full bibliographic information

Martínez de Pinillos, M., Martín-Francés, L., Bermúdez de Castro, J. M., García-Campos, C., Modesto-Mata, M., Martinón-Torres, M., & Vialet, A. (2020). Inner morphological and metric characterization of the molar remains from the Montmaurin-La Niche mandible: the Neanderthal signal. Journal of Human Evolution, 145, 102739. doi: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2019.102739.
Press release on the settlement of Europe due to immigration waves from a common source population from CENIEH

seafood Arabia out of Africa

Seafood helped prehistoric people migrate out of Africa, study reveals

Seafood helped prehistoric people migrate out of Africa, study reveals

Prehistoric pioneers could have relied on shellfish to sustain them as they followed migratory routes out of Africa during times of drought, a new study suggests.

seafood out of Africa Arabia Farasan Islands
Living specimen of the marine mollusc Conomurex fasciatus. Millions of these shells were found on the Farasan Islands in Saudi Arabia as the food refuse of prehistoric fishers. Photo credit: Dr Niklas Hausmann

The study examined fossil reefs near to the now-submerged Red Sea shorelines that marked prehistoric migratory routes from Africa to Arabia. The findings suggest this coast offered the resources necessary to act as a gateway out of Africa during periods of little rainfall when other food sources were scarce.

The research team, led by the University of York, focused on the remains of 15,000 shells dating back 5,000 years to an arid period in the region. With the coastline of original migratory routes submerged by sea-level rise after the last Ice Age, the shells came from the nearby Farasan Islands in Saudi Arabia.

Plentiful

The researchers found that populations of marine mollusks were plentiful enough to allow continuous harvests without any major ecological impacts and their availability would have enabled people to live through times of drought.

Lead author, Dr Niklas Hausmann, Associate Researcher at the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, said: "The availability of food resources plays an important role in understanding the feasibility of past human migrations – hunter-gatherer migrations would have required local food sources and periods of aridity could therefore have restricted these movements.

“Our study suggests that Red Sea shorelines had the resources necessary to provide a passage for prehistoric people.”

Healthy population

The study also confirms that communities settled on the shorelines of the Red Sea could have relied on shellfish as a sustainable food resource all year round.

Dr Hausmann added: “Our data shows that at a time when many other resources on land were scarce, people could rely on their locally available shellfish. Previous studies have shown that people of the southern Red Sea ate shellfish year-round and over periods of thousands of years. We now also know that this resource was not depleted by them, but shellfish continued to maintain a healthy population.”

Fossil reefs

The shellfish species found in the archaeological sites on the Farasan Islands were also found in abundance in fossil reefs dating to over 100 thousand years ago, indicating that these shellfish have been an available resource over longer periods than archaeological sites previously suggested.

Co-author of the study, Matthew Meredith-Williams, from La Trobe University, said: "We know that modelling past climates to learn about food resources is extremely helpful, but we need to differentiate between what is happening on land and what is happening in the water. In our study we show that marine foods were abundant and resilient and being gathered by people when they couldn't rely on terrestrial food."

 

Shellfish resilience to prehistoric human consumption in the southern Red Sea: Variability in Conomurex fasciatus across time and space is published in Quaternary International. The research was funded by the European Research Council.

 

Press release on seafood helping prehistoric people migrate out of Africa from the University of York

 


Drones enable the first detailed mapping of the High Plateaus Basin in the Moroccan Atlas

Drones enable the first detailed mapping of the High Plateaus Basin in the Moroccan Atlas

The CENIEH has used this technology to assess how the landscape of this area in the Atlas chain has evolved, which is key to understanding human evolution in North Africa during the Quaternary

drones Atlas
Alfonso Benito driving the drones. Credits: M.G:Chacón (IPHES)

The Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH) has led a paper just published in the Journal of Maps, according to which, with the help of drones, it has been possible to obtain high-resolution aerial images and topographies, fundamental to compiling the first detailed map of the High Plateaus Basin, a region in Eastern Morocco key to understanding human evolution in North Africa during the Quaternary.

“We used the drones from our Digital Mapping and 3D Analysis Laboratory to analyze how the landscape in this intramountain basin in the Atlas chain has evolved, and thus distinguish the different geological formations”, says the lead author of this work, Alfonso Benito Calvo, head of the Geomorphology and Formation Processes line of research at CENIEH.

In the zone studied, there are abundant geological materials on great plains marked by fluvial channels which led finally to the formation of shallow lakes and wetlands. From that moment, deep valleys began to be incised, leaving fluvial terraces and buttes, formed under arid conditions with frequent climatic changes.

“Numerous archaeological remains of different chronologies are preserved today in this geological record, indicating the great potential of the region for studying the archaeological history of North Africa from the Pliocene to the present day”, states Benito Calvo.

This work was conducted under the auspices of a Spanish-Moroccan project, directed by the IPHES (Instituto Catalán de Paleoecología Humana y Evolución Social), in Tarragona, and Mohammed I University (Oujda, Morocco), and has institutional support from the local and regional authorities of the Moroccan province of Jerada,  the Fundación Palarq and the Ministerio de Cultura y Deporte.

Aerial photo of Gara Soultana, in the valley of El Haï river. Credits: Alfonso Benito Calvo

Full bibliographic information

Benito-Calvo, A., Haddoumi, H., Aouraghe, H., Oujaa, A., Chacón, M. G., & Sala-Ramos, R. (2020). Geomorphological analysis using small unmanned aerial vehicles and submeter GNSS (Gara Soultana butte, High Plateaus Basin, Eastern Morocco). Journal of Maps, 16(2), 459-467. doi: 10.1080/17445647.2020.1773329.

Press release from CENIEH


molars Sima de los Huesos

The molars from Sima de los Huesos site share dental tissue traits with Homo antecessor and Neanderthals

The molars from Sima de los Huesos site share dental tissue traits with Homo antecessor and Neanderthals

The Dental Anthropology Group from CENIEH publishes a paper in PLOS ONE in which microscopy and micro-computed tomography are used to study the dental tissues in molars from European Middle Pleistocene individuals found at this site in Atapuerca, and compares these with species from the fossil record and modern humans
Distribution of enamel thickness in a lower molar from Sima de los Huesos compared with H. antecessor, Tighenif specimen and modern human. Credits: Martín-Francés et al.

The Dental Anthropology Group of the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH) has published a paper this week in the journal PLOS ONE which marks another step forward in characterizing the individuals from the Sima de los Huesos site (Atapuerca, Burgos, Spain) and their relationship with Neanderthals and Homo antecessor, and helps to clarify the evolutionary steps that led to the dentition characteristic of Late Pleistocene hominins.

In this paper, whose lead author is the researcher Laura Martín-Francés (CENIEH and PACEA-University of Bordeaux), the dental tissues in the molars of the European Middle Pleistocene individuals found at Sima de los Huesos are analyzed, and compared with species in the fossil record and modern humans.

To conduct this comparative study, micro-computed tomography (mCT) and high-resolution images were used to examine the internal structure of 72 upper and lower molars from this site at Atapuerca, and these were contrasted against another 500 molars belonging to species from the genus Homo, extinct and extant, from Africa, Asia and Europe.

In the entire fossil record analyzed, only the Neanderthals present a unique structural pattern in molar tissues (enamel thickness, percentage of tissues and their distribution in the crown) which, in addition, they do not share with any other species. “In comparison with that record and with modern humans, Neanderthals had thin enamel, with a higher proportion of dentine and a more disperse distribution pattern”, says Martín-Francés.

It has been possible to determine that the molars from the Sima de los Huesos individuals had thick enamel and that, therefore, they do not share this trait with Neanderthals. Nevertheless, the two groups do share the same tissue distribution pattern.

“The results suggest that even though the complex of typically Neanderthal traits appeared later, certain aspects of the Neanderthal molar structure were already present in the hominins from Sima de los Huesos. In earlier work, we had identified this same pattern in Homo antecessor, another of the species recovered at Atapuerca”, adds Martín-Francés.

The Sima de los Huesos population, related genetically to the Neanderthals, represents a unique opportunity to study the appearance of the “typical” structural pattern of Neanderthal molar tissue.

Distribution of enamel thickness in an upper molar from Sima de los Huesos compared with H. antecessor, Neanderthal and modern human. Credits: Martín-Francés et al.

Full bibliographic information

Martín-Francés, L., Martinón-Torres, M., Martínez de Pinillos, M., García-Campos, C., Zanolli, C., Bayle, P., Modesto-Mata, M., Arsuaga, J. L., & Bermúdez de Castro, J. M. (2020). Crown tissue proportions and enamel thickness distribution in the Middle Pleistocene hominin molars from Sima de los Huesos (SH) population (Atapuerca, Spain). PLoS ONE, 15(6), e0233281. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0233281.
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Environmental and climatic changes influenced the origin of the genus 'Homo'

Environmental and climate changes influenced the origin of the genus 'Homo'

CENIEH participates in a study on Mille-Logya, a new site located in the emblematic Afar region (Ethiopia), which reinforces the relationship between the origin of the Homo genus and the climatic and environmental changes that took place on the African continent between 2.5 and 3 million years ago
climatic changes Homo Mille-Logya
Hominin remains from the MLP area. Credits: Z. Alemseged et al

Several hypothesis suggest a link between the origin of the genus Homo and the climatic and environmental changes that took place in Africa between 2.5 and 3 million years ago. The geological and paleontological analyses of a new site, Mille-Logya, located in the emblematic region of Afar (Ethiopia) where the species Australopithecus afarensis was found, reinforces with new data these hypothesis.

A new study, published in Nature communication by an international team led by Zeresenay Alemseged from the University of Chicago, and with the participation of the geochronologist from the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), Mark Jan Sier, reports the finding of four hominin remains (two ulnae fragments, a calvarium fragment and an upper second molar) together with a large sample of faunal remains that include hypopothamus, bovids, giraffes, crocodiles, hyenas and horses.

The fossil samples come from three different areas, Gafura, Seraitu and Uraitele dated from 2.4 to 2.9 million years. “This site represents a unique opportunity to study fossils from an age range that normally is missing in the Afar area”, says Mark Jan Sier, from the Geochronology and Geology Programme of CENIEH and who contributed to the dating of the site with the paleomagnetic analysis.

The comparison of the fauna from the three different areas within Mille-Logya, as well as with that found in the nearby localities of Hadar and Dikika, where famous Australopithecus afarensis samples were found, suggests an important faunal and paleoenvironmental change during this period in this region of Africa.

The faunal and paleoenvironmental reconstructions suggest that the earliest members of Homo were associated with more open environments than Australopithecus was. The in situ faunal change at Mille-logya may be linked to environmental and climatic factors that may have caused Homo to emerge in from Australopithecus or to migrate to the region as part of a fauna adapted to more open habitats.

Full bibliographic information

Alemseged, Z., Wynn, J. G., Geraads, D., Reed, D., Barr, W. A., Bobe, R., McPherron, S. P., Deino, A., Alene, M., Sier, M. J., Roman, D., & Mohan, J. (2020). Fossils from Mille-Logya, Afar, Ethiopia, elucidate the link between Pliocene environmental changes and Homo origins. Nature Communications, 11, 2480. doi: 10.1038/s41467-020-16060-8.
Press release from CENIEH