5,000-year-old milk proteins point to the importance of dairying in eastern Eurasia

5,000-year-old milk proteins point to the importance of dairying in eastern Eurasia

Recent findings push back estimates of dairying in the eastern Steppe by more than 1,700 years, pointing to migration as a potential means of introduction

 

Today dairy foods sustain and support millions around the world, including in Mongolia, where dairy foods make up to 50% of calories consumed during the summer. Although dairy-based pastoralism has been an essential part of life and culture in the eastern Eurasian Steppe for millennia, the eastward spread of dairying from its origin in southwest Asia and the development of these practices is little understood. The current study, led by Shevan Wilkin and Jessica Hendy of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, presents the earliest evidence for dairy consumption in East Asia, circa 3000 BCE, and offers insights into the arrival and evolution of dairy pastoralism in prehistoric Mongolia.

dairying Eurasia
These are horses on the steppe. Credits: Björn Reichhardt

Earliest dairy consumption & a possible path of entry

The highly mobile nature of pastoralist societies and the severe winds of the Eastern Steppe make detecting occupied sites with direct evidence into the lives and culture of ancient Mongolians exceedingly rare. Instead, the researchers looked for clues in ritual human burial mounds, often marked by stone monuments and occasionally featuring satellite animal graves.

In collaboration with the National University of Mongolia, researchers analyzed dental calculus from individuals ranging from the Early Bronze Age to the Mongol Period. Three-quarters of all individuals contained evidence that they had consumed dairy foods, which demonstrates the widespread importance of this food source in both prehistoric and historic Mongolia. The study's results include the earliest direct evidence for dairy consumption in East Asia, identified in an individual from the Afanasievo site of Shatar Chuluu, which dates to roughly 3000 BCE. Previous DNA analysis on this individual revealed non-local genetic markers consistent with Western Steppe Herder populations, presenting Early Bronze Age Afanasievo migrations westward via the Russian Altai as a viable candidate for the introduction of dairy and domestic livestock into eastern Eurasia.

Multiple different animal species were used for their milk

dairying Eurasia
These are sheep and goat herds in Mongolia. Credits: Björn Reichhardt

By sequencing the milk proteins extracted from the dental calculus, the scientists were able to determine which animal species were being used for dairy production, and thereby help to trace the progression of domestication, dairying, and pastoralism in the region. "Modern Mongolians use cow, sheep, goat, yak, camel, horse and reindeer for milk today, yet when each of these species were first utilized for dairy in Mongolia remains unclear," says Shevan Wilkin, lead author of the study. "What is clear is that the crucial renewable calories and hydration made available through the incorporation of dairying would have become essential across the arid and agriculturally challenging ancient Eastern Steppe."

The earliest individuals to show evidence of dairy consumption lived around 5000 years ago and consumed milk from ruminant species, such as cattle, sheep, and goats. A few thousand years later, at Bronze Age sites dated to after 1200 BCE, the researchers find the first evidence of horse milk consumption, occurring at the same time as early evidence for horse bridling and riding, as well as the use of horses at ritual burial sites. In addition, the study shows that during the Mongol Empire circa 1200-1400 CE, people also consumed the milk of camels. "We are excited that through the analysis of proteins we are able to see the consumption of multiple different animal species, even sometimes in the same individual. This gives us a whole new insight into ancient dairying practices" says Jessica Hendy, senior author of the study.

Millenia after the first evidence of horse milk consumption, horses remain vital to the daily lives of many in modern Mongolia, where mounted pastoralists rely on them to manage large herds of livestock, transport people and supplies, and provide a primary source of meat and milk. "Our findings suggest that the incorporation of horses into dairy pastoralism in Eastern Eurasia was closely linked to a broader economic transformation in the use of horses for riding, movement, and diet," says William Taylor of the University of Colorado-Boulder, one of the study's coauthors.

Although the earliest individual sampled in this study showed evidence of dairy consumption, the researchers hope future studies will examine individuals from previous time periods. "In order to form a clearer picture of the origins of dairying in this region, we need to understand the impact of western steppe herder migrations and confirm whether dairying was occurring in Mongolia prior to their arrival," Shevan Wilkin concludes.

dairying Eurasia
This is a horse burial at Morin Mort, Mongolia. Credits: William Taylor

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Publication information:

Title: Dairy pastoralism sustained Eastern Eurasian steppe populations for 5000 years

Authors: Shevan Wilkin, Alicia Ventresca Miller, William T.T. Taylor, Bryan K. Miller, Richard W. Hagan, Madeleine Bleasdale, Ashley Scott, Sumiya Gankhuyg, Abigail Ramsoe, S. Uliziibayar, Christian Trachsel, Paolo Nanni, Jonas Grossmann, Ludovic Orlando, Mark Horton, Philipp W. Stockhammer, Erdene Myagmar, Nicole Boivin, Christina Warinner, Jessica Hendy

Publication: Nature Ecology & Evolution

DOI: 10.1038/s41559-020-1120-y

 

Press release from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History / DE


5,200-year-old grains in the eastern Altai Mountains redate trans-Eurasian crop exchange

5,200-year-old grains in the eastern Altai Mountains redate trans-Eurasian crop exchange

Agricultural crops dispersed across Eurasia more than five millennia ago, causing significant cultural change in human populations across the ancient world. New discoveries in the Altai Mountains illustrate that this process occurred earlier than believed

trans-Eurasian crop exchange
Dr. Xinying Zhou and his team from the IVPP in Beijing excavated the Tangtian Cave site during the summer of 2016. Credits: Xinying Zhou

Most people are familiar with the historical Silk Road, but fewer people realize that the exchange of items, ideas, technology, and human genes through the mountain valleys of Central Asia started almost three millennia before organized trade networks formed. These pre-Silk Road exchange routes played an important role in shaping human cultural developments across Europe and Asia, and facilitated the dispersal of technologies such as horse breeding and metal smelting into East Asia. One of the most impactful effects of this process of ancient cultural dispersal was the westward spread of northeast Asian crops and the eastward spread of southwest Asian crops. However, until the past few years, a lack of archaeobotanical studies in Central Asia left a dearth of data relating to when and how this process occurred.

This new study, led by scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, provides details of recently recovered ancient grains from the far northern regions of Inner Asia. Radiocarbon dating shows that the grains include the oldest examples of wheat and barley ever recovered this far north in Asia, pushing back the dates for early farming in the region by at least a millenium. These are also the earliest domesticated plants reported from the northern half of Central Asia, the core of the ancient exchange corridor. This study pulls together sedimentary pollen and ancient wood charcoal data with archaeobotanical remains from the Tiangtian archaeological site in the Chinese Altai Mountains to reveal how humans cultivated crops at such northern latitudes. This study illustrates how adaptable ancient crop plants were to new ecological constraints and how human cultural practices allowed people to survive in unpredictable environments.

The Northern Dispersal of Cereal Grains

The ancient relatives of wheat and barley plants evolved to grow in the warm and dry climate of the eastern Mediterranean and southwest Asia. However, this study illustrates that ancient peoples were cultivating these grasses over five and a half thousand kilometers to the northeast of where they originally evolved to grow. In this study, Dr. Xinying Zhou and his colleagues integrate paleoenvironmental proxies to determine how extreme the ecology was around the archaeological cave site of Tangtian more than five millennia ago, at the time of its occupation. The site is located high in the Altai Mountains on a cold, dry landscape today; however, the study shows that the ecological setting around the site was slightly warmer and more humid at the time when people lived in and around this cave.

The slightly warmer regional conditions were likely the result of shifting air masses bringing warmer, wetter air from the south. In addition to early farmers using a specific regional climate pocket to grow crops in North Asia, analysis showed that the crops they grew evolved to survive in such northern regions. The results of this study provide scholars with evidence for when certain evolutionary changes in these grasses occurred, including changes in the programed reliance of day length, which signals to the plant when to flower, and a greater resistance to cold climates.

trans-Eurasian crop exchange
Charred seeds from Tontian Cave site. Credits: Xinying Zhou

The Trans-Eurasian Exchange and Crop Dispersal

The ancient dispersal of crops across Inner Asia has received a lot of attention from biologists and archaeologists in recent years; as Dr. Spengler, one of the study's lead authors, discusses in his recent book Fruit from the Sands, these ancient exchange routes shaped the course of human history. The mingling of crops originating from opposite ends of Asia resulted in the crop-rotation cycles that fueled demographic growth and led to imperial formation. East Asian millets would become one of the most important crops in ancient Europe and wheat would become one of the most important crops in East Asia by the Han Dynasty. While the long tradition of rice cultivation in East Asia made rice a staple of the Asian kitchen, Chinese cuisine would be unrecognizable without wheat-based food items like steamed buns, dumplings, and noodles. The discovery that these plants dispersed across Eurasia earlier than previously understood will have lasting impacts on the study of cultivation and labor practices in ancient Eurasia, as well as the history cultural contact and shifts in culinary systems throughout time.

These new discoveries provide reason to question these views, and seem to suggest that mixed small-scale human populations made major contributions to world history through migration and cultural and technological exchange. "This study not only presents the earliest dates for domesticated grains in far North Asia," says Professor Xiaoqiang Li, director of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, "it represents the earliest beginning of a trans-Eurasian exchange that would eventually develop into the great Silk Road".

Dr. Xinying Zhou, who headed the study and directs a research team at the IVPP in Beijing, emphasizes that "this discovery is a testament to human ingenuity and the amazing coevolutionary bond between people and the plants that they maintain in their cultivated fields."

photo of the stone men (????? Chimulchek Culture) in the steppe area of Altai Mountains. These figures are characteristic of the peoples who live in the area around the time of occupation at Tongtian. These specific examples are located at the Chimulchek site (ca. 4000 years old) and not far from Tongtian Cave. Ceramic sherds from the cave suggest that the occupants in the cave shared similar cultural traits to other people in the region. Credits: Jianjun Yu

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Title: 5200-year-old cereal grains from the eastern Altai Mountains predate the trans-Eurasian crop exchange
Authors: Xinying Zhou, Jianjun Yu, Robert Nicolas Spengler, Hui Shen, Keliang Zhao, Junyi Ge, Yige Bao, Junchi Liu, Qingjiang Yang, Guanhan Chen, Peter Weiming Jia, and Xiaoqiang Li
Publication: Nature Plants
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41477-019-0581-y

 

The press release about the trans-Eurasian crop exchange is from Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History / DE


Denisovans Tibetan Plateau Baishiya Karst Cave Xiahe mandible

First hominins on the Tibetan Plateau were Denisovans

First hominins on the Tibetan Plateau were Denisovans

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

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

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

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

Mandible from Baishiya Karst Cave

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

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

Primitive shape and large molars

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

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

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

 

 

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

Tibetan plateau first occupied by middle Pleistocene Denisovans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Press release from the Chinese Academy of Sciences


Middle Pleistocene asian Hualongdong Hualong cave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Press release from the Chinese Academy of Sciences


Tongzi hominids China Late Middle Pleistocene

Tongzi hominids are potentially a new human ancestor in Asia

Tongzi hominids are potentially a new human ancestor in Asia

Tongzi hominids China Late Middle Pleistocene
Tongzi teeth. Credit: Song Xing

The CENIEH has been participating in a comparative research about human teeth discovered in this Southern China site which has revealed that Tongzi's teeth do not fit the morphological pattern of traditional Homo erectus.

The Researchers María Martinón-Torres and José María Bermúdez de Castro have co-authored a research about the hominids from Tongzi which was published in the Journal of Human Evolution from the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH) which reveals that Tongzi teeth do not fit the morphological pattern of traditional Homo erectus and that these teeth could potentially represent the highly targeted "Denisovans".

Between 1972 and 1983, the four teeth were discovered in the Yanhui Cave in Tongzi, Southern China. Their chronology is between 172,000 and 240,000 years old and they were originally identified as late Homo erectus or ancient Homo sapiens.

This research was led by Song Xing from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing (IVVP). The morphology of hominid teeth has been reassessed by geometric morphometrical analysis and Micro-Computed Tomography (micro-CT) as well as through morphological standard comparisons.

Tongzi teeth have been primarily compared with hominids during the same chronological period (Late Middle Pleistocene) and/or in the same geographical region (East Asia). However, the comparative sample includes a wide range of hominids.

More generally, the results indicate the existence of more than one human population in East Asia during this period: one which may be taxonomically classified as Homo erectus (exemplified by fossils such as Zhoukoudian, Hexian and Yiyuan); and a second which may be characterized by the existence of derived traits more commonly observed in recent species of the Homo genus, such as crown symmetry, tongue thrusting and the simplified dentine surface of the third premolar.

"More genetic and fossil discoveries would be necessary to evaluate the taxonomy of the "non-erectus" populations of the Middle Pleistocene, such as the Tongzi hominids, which could be good candidates for the Denisovan ancestry," says María Martinón-Torres.

The Denisovans

These populations are related to the Neanderthals who lived in Asia during the Late Middle Pleistocene and the Upper Pleistocene period which was discovered in 2010 from the genetic analysis of a phalanx and a tooth found in the Denisova cave in the Altai massif (Russia). An abundant amount of genetic information has been collected from the Denisovans but there are very few fossil remains. Therefore, both their physical appearance and their identification in the fossil record remain a mystery.

 

Full bibliographic information

Xing, S., Martinón-Torres, M., & Bermúdez de Castro, J. M. (2019). Late Middle Pleistocene hominin teeth from Tongzi, southern China. Journal of Human Evolution, 130, 96-108. doi: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2019.03.001.

 

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