El Provencio

First exhaustive study of the Paleolithic site of El Provencio

First exhaustive study of the Paleolithic site of El Provencio

The CENIEH researcher Davinia Moreno has co-led the publication of a paper on this Paleolithic site in the province of Cuenca, whose age, according to the ESR dating technique, is 830,000 years.
El Provencio
El Provencio site. Credits: Santiago David Domínguez-Solera, ARES arqueología

The researcher Davinia Moreno, a geochronologist at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), is the co-leader of a paper published in the journal Quaternary International about El Provencio, in which the first exhaustive study of this Paleolithic site in the province of Cuenca, situated in the La Mancha plain on the banks of the Záncara River, is conducted.

The geochronological analysis carried out at the CENIEH, applying the techniques of Electron Spin Resonance (ESR) and Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) has provided the first numerical datings in this region. The most recent and most ancient levels of the archaeological sequence were dated, yielding ages of 41,000 (OSL) and 830,000 years (ESR).

The rich archaeo-paleontological record of El Provencio exhibits stone tools worked in flint and quartzite catalogued as Modes 1, 2 and 3 (Oldowan, Acheulean and Mousterian), as well as bone remains from species characteristic of the Pleistocene such as horses, bisons and mammoths.

This study suggests that, over the last 800,000 years, groups of hunter-gatherers occupied this territory, undertaking a variety of activities recurrently and continuously, and it undercuts theories of a discontinuity in the center of the Iberian Peninsula and those contending that population was more intensive on the coast than in the interior.

Research and outreach project

The research work at El Provencio is part of a much larger project that got under way in 2013 and which, at the moment, covers dozens of locations throughout the province of Cuenca. This project, directed by Santiago David Domínguez-Solera, lead author of this study, through the company ARES (Arqueología y Patrimonio Cultural) is being conducted in close collaboration with the Junta de Comunidades de Castilla-La Mancha, the Diputación de Cuenca and the Ayuntamiento de El Provencio.

From the outset, this project has placed special importance on outreach for its scientific results: a classroom for schoolchildren and visitors has been set up, and documentary reportage, exhibitions and university courses (Universidad Internacional Menéndez Pelayo) in the municipality of El Provencio itself have been produced.

"As of several years ago, we have been opening up a window onto the prehistoric past, aligning it with the three natural zones making up what is today the province of Cuenca; La Mancha, Sierra and Alcarria, each with its particular features. This window offers a glimpse of an area little studied or overlooked up to now, and therefore unknown to science”, declares Domínguez-Solera.

Press release from CENIEH

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

Neanderthals: pioneers in the use of marine resources

Neanderthals ate mussels, fish, and seals too

International research team with participation from University of Göttingen find it wasn't just Homo sapiens who sourced food from the sea -- impact on cognitive abilities suspected

Neanderthals marine
View on the Figueira Brava cave with its three entrances. Credits: João Zilhão

Over 80,000 years ago, Neanderthals were already feeding themselves regularly on mussels, fish and other marine life. The first robust evidence of this has been found by an international research team with the participation of the University of Göttingen during an excavation in the cave of Figueira Brava in Portugal. Dr Dirk Hoffmann at the Göttingen Isotope Geology Department dated flowstone layers - calcite deposits that form like stalagmites from dripping water - using the uranium-thorium method, and was thus able to determine the age of the excavation layers to between 86,000 and 106,000 years. This means that the layers date from the period in which the Neanderthals settled in Europe. The use of the sea as a source of food at that time has so far only been attributed to anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens) in Africa. The results of the study were published in the journal Science.

Cracked-open and burnt fragments of pincers of the edible crab (cancer pagurus). Credits: João Zilhão

The cave of Figueira Brava is located 30 kilometres south of Lisbon on the slopes of the Serra da Arrábida. Today it is located directly on the waterfront, but at that time it was up to two kilometres from the coast. The research team, coordinated by the first author of the study, Professor João Zilhão from the University of Barcelona, found that the Neanderthals living there were able to routinely harvest mussels and fish, and to hunt seals. Their diet included mussels, crustaceans and fish as well as waterfowl and marine mammals such as dolphins and seals. Food from the sea is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and other fatty acids that promote the development of brain tissue.

Until now, it has always been suspected that this consumption increased the cognitive abilities of the human populations in Africa. "Among other influences, this could explain the early appearance of a culture of modern people that used symbolic artefacts, such as body painting with ochre, the use of ornaments or the decoration of containers made of ostrich eggs with geometric motifs," explains Hoffmann. "Such behaviour reflects human's capacity for abstract thought and communication through symbols, which also contributed to the emergence of more organised and complex societies of modern humans".

Neanderthals marine
Horizontal exposure of a mussel shell bed. Credits: João Zilhão

The recent results of the excavation of Figueira Brava now confirm that if the habitual consumption of marine life played an important role in the development of cognitive abilities, this is as true for Neanderthals as it is for anatomically modern humans. Hoffmann and his co-authors previously found that Neanderthals made cave paintings in three caves on the Iberian Peninsula more than 65,000 years ago and that perforated and painted shells must also be attributed to the Neanderthals.

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Original publication: J. Zilhão et al., Last Interglacial Iberian Neandertals as fisher-hunter-gatherers, Science, 10.1126/science.aaz7943

See: https://science.sciencemag.org/cgi/doi/10.1126/science.aaz7943

 

 

Press release from the University of Göttingen

 

Science publishes study on Neanderthals as pioneers in marine resource exploitation

Neanderthals marine
Cracked-open and burnt fragments of Cancer pagurus pincer? Credits: José Paulo Ruas © João Zilhão

The journal Science has published a study led by the ICREA researcher João Zilhão, from the University of Barcelona, which presents the results of the excavation in Cueva de Figueira Brava, Portugal, which was used as shelter by Neanderthal populations about between 86 and 106 thousand years ago. The study reveals fishing and shellfish-gathering contributed significantly to the subsistence economy of the inhabitants of Figueira Brava. The relevance of this discovery lies in the fact that so far, there were not many signs of these practices as common among Neanderthals.

Regarding the consequences of this study, João Zilhão notes that "an influent model on our origins suggests the common consumption of water resources -rich in Omega3 and other fatty acids that favour the development of brain tissues- would have increased the cognitive skills of modern anatomy humans. That is, those humans who, in Africa, were contemporaries of Neanderthals and are usually regarded as the only ancestors of the current Homo sapiens". But the results of the excavation of Figueira Brava state that, if this common consumption of marine resources played an important role in the development of cognitive skills, it did so on the entire humanity, including Neanderthals, and not only the African population that spread later".

Zilhão member of the Prehistoric Studies and Research Seminar (SERP-UB), lists the research study in the line of "proof that accumulated over the last decade to show Neanderthals had a symbolic material culture". Two years ago, in 2018, the journals Science and Science Advances published two studies co-led by João Zilhão which showed that more than 65,000 years ago, Neanderthals made cave paintings in at least three caves in the Iberian Peninsula: La Pasiega, Maltravieso and Ardales (Science). Furthermore, more than 115,000 years ago, they used perforated marine shells and with ocher remains, such as the ones from Cueva de los Aviones (Murcia, Spain), as pendants and shell containers with residues of complex mixes of pigment (Science Advances). These findings, the most recent one being the one in Figueira Brava, "support a view on human evolution in which the known fossil variants, such as Neanderthals' in Europe and its African anatomy contemporaries -more similar to ours-, should be understood as remains from our ancestors, not as different higher-lower species", notes Zilhão.

Pieces of clam Ruditapes decussatus, found in the site. Credits: Mariana Nabais © João Zilhão

A 50% of the diet of the inhabitants in Figueira Brava was built by coastal resources: molluscs (limpet, mussel and clams; crustaceans (brown crab and spider crab); fish (shark, eel, sea bream, mullet); birds (mallard, common scoter, goose, cormorant, gannet, shag, auk, egret, loon), and mammals (dolphin, seal). This was completed with the hunt of deer, goats, horses, aurochs and other small preys such as tortoises. Among the other carbonised plants were olive trees, vines, fig trees and other Mediterranean climate typical species, among which the most abundant was the stone pine -its wood was used as combustible. Pine forests were exploited as fruit tree gardens: mature pines, albeit closed, were taken from the branches and stored in the cave, where the fire could open them so as to take the pines.

The study also provides other results, such as the idea of the concept of Neanderthals as cold and tundra peoples, experts on hunting mammoths, rhinos, buffalos and reindeers, is biased. "Most Neanderthals would have lived in southern regions, specially in Italy and in the Iberian Peninsula, and its lifestyle would have been very similar to those in Figueira Brava", notes Zilhão.

Another important affirmation in the study is the familiarity of humans with the sea and its resources as something older and wider than what was thought. "This could probably help explain how, between 45,000 and 50,000 years ago, humans could cross the Timor Sea to colonize Australia and New Guinea, and then, about 30,000 years ago, the closest islands to the western Pacific", says Zilhão.

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Article reference:

J. Zilhão, D. E. Angelucci, M. Araújo Igreja, L. J. Arnold, E. Badal, P. Callapez, J. L. Cardoso, F. d'Errico, J. Daura, M. Demuro, M. Deschamps, C. Dupont, S. Gabriel, D. L. Hoffmann, P. Legoinha, H. Matias, A. M. Monge Soares, M. Nabais, P. Portela, A. Queffelec, F. Rodrigues, P. Souto. "Last Interglacial Iberian Neandertals as fisher-hunter-gatherers", Science, 367, March 27, 2020.

 

Press release from the University of Barcelona

 

Neanderthals: Pioneers in the use of marine resources

Neanderthals slurping seashells by the seashore? This scene may startle those accustomed to imagining Homo neanderthalensis as a people of cold climes who hunted large herbivores. Yet an international team including scientists from three laboratories affiliated with the CNRS and partner institutions* have just demonstrated that Neanderthals hunted, fished, and gathered prodigious volumes of seafood and other marine animals: they discovered remains of molluscs, crustaceans, fish, birds, and mammals in a Portuguese cave (Figueira Brava) occupied by Neanderthals between 106,000 and 86,000 BCE. The diversity of marine food resources found there even exceeds that observed at other, much more recent Portuguese sites, dated to 9,000-7,500 BCE. The team's findings, published in Science (27 March 2020), suggest that many Neanderthal groups--living in Mediterranean climates far from the mammoth hunts of the frigid steppes--shared these dietary habitats.

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Researchers from Centre de recherche en archéologie, archéosciences, Histoire (CNRS/Université de Rennes), from De la préhistoire à l'actuel : culture, environnement et anthropologie laboratory (CNRS/Université de Bordeaux/Ministère de la Culture) and Travaux de recherches archéologiques sur les cultures, les espaces et les sociétés laboratory (CNRS/Université de Toulouse Jean Jaurès/Ministère de la Culture).

 

Press release from the CNRS


horse genetic history

A genomic tour-de-force reveals the last 5,000 years of horse history

A genomic tour-de-force reveals the last 5,000 years of horse history

horse genetic history
This image shows a herd of Kazakh horses in the Pavlodar region of Kazakhstan in August 2016. Credit: Ludovic Orlando

Each year on the first Saturday in May, Thoroughbred horses reach speeds of over 40 miles per hour as they compete to win the Kentucky Derby. But the domestic horse wasn't always bred for speed. In fact, an international team now has evidence to suggest that the modern horse is genetically quite different from the horses of even just a few hundred years ago.

Their work, appearing May 2 in the journal Cell, constructs the genetic history of the domestic horse across the world over the last 5,000 years by using the largest genome collection ever generated for a non-human organism. The findings identify two new horse lineages that are now extinct and suggest that familiar traits such as speed were only selected for more recently in their history.

"The horse has impacted human history like no other animal," says Ludovic Orlando (@LudovicLorlando), a research director with CNRS and the University of Toulouse and a Professor of Molecular Archaeology at the University of Copenhagen. "If you look at the historical record from the Bronze Age onward, horses are always part of the equation up until very recent times, connecting civilizations and impacting transportation, warfare, and agriculture. Our goal was to understand how humans and their activities transformed the horse throughout history to fit their purposes--and how these changes in biology influenced human history."

The team responsible for this project consisted of 121 collaborators, including geneticists, archaeologists, and evolutionary biologists from 85 institutions around the world, and examined genome-scale data from 278 horse specimens from across Eurasia over the last 42,000 years.

"Such a large collection of data means that we can build a much more precise understanding of horse domestication and management through space and time," Orlando says. "But it was truly an interdisciplinary effort because of course it takes a lot more than just DNA to understand such a story. We had to integrate all these social, historical, and geographical aspects."

This graphical abstract summarizes horse genetic history over the last 5,000 years. Credit: Fages et al./Cell

Overall, the team's findings suggest that equine history was much more complex than was previously realized. Today, there are only two known lineages of horses, the domestic horse and the Przewalski's horse. But the researchers here identified two additional now-extinct lineages of horses, one from the Iberian Peninsula and one from Siberia, both of which still existed 4,000-4,500 years ago. "We found two lineages of horses at the far ends of Eurasia that are not related to what we call the domestic horse today, nor to the Przewalski's horse. They are a sort of horse equivalent of what Neanderthals are to modern humans," Orlando says.

The researchers also found a major shift in the genetic makeup of horses in Europe and Central Asia in the 7th to 9th centuries and say this shift probably corresponds to Islamic expansions. The horses common in Europe before that time are now only found in regions such as Iceland; the new European horses after that time were much more similar to horses found in Persia during the Sassanid Empire. When the team performed a scan to identify genes that had been selected for in these Persian horses, they found evidence of selection in genes associated with body shape.

"It was a moment in history that reshaped the landscape of horses in Europe. If you look at what we today call Arabian horses, you know that they have a different shape--and we know how popular this anatomy has been throughout history, including in racing horses. Based on the genomic evidence, we propose that this horse was so successful and influential because it brought a new anatomy and perhaps other favorable traits," he says.

The researchers found that there have been additional significant and recent changes in the domestic horse. Similar selection scans indicate that only in the last 1,500 years did traits such as ambling and speed over short distances become more actively sought. And when they looked at the overall genetic diversity of the domestic horse, the researchers found a sharp decline in the last 200 to 300 years. They believe this decline corresponds with new breeding practices that were introduced with the rise of the concept of "pure" breeds.

"What we picture as a horse today and what we picture as a horse from a thousand years ago or two thousand years ago was likely actually very different. Some of those traits that we are most familiar with are only a modern invention, and in the last few hundred years, we have actually impacted the horse genome a lot more than in the previous 4,000 years of domestication," says Orlando.

This map shows the locations of the archaeological sites where horse remains were found. Credit: Fages et al./Cell

He believes that this research can tell us a lot about both the past and the present. "Our findings show that the past is a lot more diverse than we thought it was and that it cannot be imagined or inferred through modern-day variation. But ancient DNA tells us a lot about today as well, because it teaches us about the consequences of some shifts in breeding practices," he says. And that, he believes, can also affect the way we think about conservation and modern agricultural practices.

Of course, our understanding of the domestic horse's history is far from complete. Orlando acknowledges that there are geographic and temporal gaps in his story. Perhaps mostly glaringly, we still don't know when and or where the horse was domesticated. "Horse domestication is central to human history, and in 2019, we still don't understand where it started. That's mind-blowing," he says.

He looks forward to filling in those blanks. "Whenever I'm asked about what finding I'm most excited about, I always say, the next one. Because this research opens the door for so many possibilities to be studied now."

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Texas Serengeti

Ancient 'Texas Serengeti' had elephant-like animals, rhinos, alligators and more

Ancient 'Texas Serengeti' had elephant-like animals, rhinos, alligators and more

An artist's interpretation of ancient North American fauna. The new study led by The University of Texas at Austin Jackson School of Geosciences revealed that elephant-like gomphotheres, rhinos, horses and antelopes with slingshot-shaped horns were among the species recovered near Beeville, Texas, by Great Depression-era fossil hunters. Credit: Jay Matternes/ The Smithsonian Institution

During the Great Depression, some unemployed Texans were put to work as fossil hunters. The workers retrieved tens of thousands of specimens that have been studied in small bits and pieces while stored in the state collections of The University of Texas at Austin for the past 80 years.

Now, decades after they were first collected, a UT researcher has studied and identified an extensive collection of fossils from dig sites near Beeville, Texas, and found that the fauna make up a veritable "Texas Serengeti" - with specimens including elephant-like animals, rhinos, alligators, antelopes, camels, 12 types of horses and several species of carnivores. In total, the fossil trove contains nearly 4,000 specimens representing 50 animal species, all of which roamed the Texas Gulf Coast 11 million to 12 million years ago.

paper describing these fossils, their collection history and geologic setting was published April 11 in the journal Palaeontologia Electronica.

"It's the most representative collection of life from this time period of Earth history along the Texas Coastal Plain," said Steven May, the research associate at the UT Jackson School of Geosciences who studied the fossils and authored the paper.

In addition to shedding light on the inhabitants of an ancient Texas ecosystem, the collection is also valuable because of its fossil firsts. They include a new genus of gomphothere, an extinct relative of elephants with a shovel-like lower jaw, and the oldest fossils of the American alligator and an extinct relative of modern dogs.

A new study of fossils dug up in Texas during the Great Depression offers the best look yet of an ancient environment that was once home to a diverse array of animals including camels, rhinos, alligators and an ancient elephant relative. Glen Evans (left), who managed much of the Works Progress Administration's effort to collect Texas fossils, is pictured here carrying a fossil in a field jacket with a worker. Credit: The University of Texas at Austin Jackson School of Geosciences

The fossils came into the university's collection as part of the State-Wide Paleontologic-Mineralogic Survey that was funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a federal agency that provided work to millions of Americans during the Great Depression. From 1939 to 1941, the agency partnered with the UT Bureau of Economic Geology, which supervised the work and organized field units for collecting fossils and minerals across the state.

Despite lasting only three years, the survey found and excavated thousands of fossils from across Texas including four dig sites in Bee and Live Oak counties, with the majority of their finds housed in what is now the Texas Vertebrate Paleontology Collections at the Jackson School Museum of Earth History. Over the years, a number of scientific papers have been published on select groups of WPA specimens. But May's paper is the first to study the entire fauna.

This extensive collection of fossils is helping to fill in gaps about the state's ancient environment, said Matthew Brown, the director of the museum's vertebrate paleontology collections.

The emphasis on big mammals is due in large part to the collection practices of the fossil hunters, most of whom were not formally trained in paleontology. Large tusks, teeth and skulls were easier to spot - and more exciting to find - than bones left by small species.

"They collected the big, obvious stuff," May said. "But that doesn't fully represent the incredible diversity of the Miocene environment along the Texas Coastal Plain."

In order to account for gaps in the collection, May tracked down the original dig sites so he could screen for tiny fossils such as rodent teeth. One of the sites was on a ranch near Beeville owned by John Blackburn. Using aerial photography and notes from the WPA program stored in the university's archives, May and the research team were able to track down the exact spot of an original dig site.

"We're thrilled to be a part of something that was started in 1939," Blackburn said. "It's been a privilege to work with UT and the team involved, and we hope that the project can help bring additional research opportunities."

Scores of WPA-era fossils in the UT collections are still secured in plaster field jackets, waiting to be unpacked for future research projects. Lab managers Deborah Wagner and Kenneth Bader are supervising their preparation, which includes teaching UT students fossil prep skills so they can pick up where the WPA workers left off.

Wagner said that the advantage of unpacking fossils decades later is that they are able to apply modern research techniques that scientists from past eras wouldn't have dreamed possible.

"We are able to preserve more detailed anatomy and answer questions that require higher resolution data," she said.

May said that he plans to continue to study the fossils as more are prepared.

Texas Serengeti
Fossilized skull parts from ancient elephant relatives in the collections of the Jackson School Museum of Earth History. The skull of a shovel-jawed gomphothere (pictured on bottom) collected by Great Depression-era fossil hunters is still wrapped in its field jacket. Credit: The University of Texas at Austin Jackson School of Geosciences

Press release from the University of Texas at Austin