cultura muerte neandertales humanos modernos Nohemi Sala culture death neanderthals humans

Does the culture of death predate the Neanderthals and modern humans?

Does the culture of death predate the Neanderthals and modern humans?

The CENIEH researcher Nohemi Sala has been awarded 1.5 million euros by the European Research Council through an ERC-Starting Grant, to scour the fossil record for the roots and evolution of our ancestors' funerary behavior.

cultura muerte neandertales humanos modernos Nohemi Sala
Nohemi Sala, ERC-Starting Grant proyect IP.Credits: N. Sala

All societies existing today possess some kind of funerary culture, and this is one of the behaviors that takes us closest to how complex the human mind is. However, the emergence of this behavior is one of the most controversial topics in the field of human evolution. When did our ancestors start to acquire a culture of death? How was this behavior manifested over time and space? Did this practice appear independently in different species?

There are different ways to tackle these questions, and the more specific one of whether the culture ofdeath precedes Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans. To date, analyses in Paleolithic archaeology have centered on the archaeological context: that is, whether skeletons are preserved completely, the existence of a grave cut or whether objects that could be interpreted as symbolic elements or grave goods are present. This vision restricts funerary behavior almost exclusively to burials, something that was exceptionally rare before the Late Pleistocene, which began 127,000 years ago.

Thus, there is a need to find new methodological approaches so that what has been preserved up to our own time is right at the center: human bones. The European fossil record is a fundamental source of information due to the abundance of fossil skeletons. This is where forensic taphonomy, a discipline that can help to shed light on fundamental issues in this field, comes in. Applying this would be something like carrying out “autopsies” of human fossils to try to learn how they died and, above all, what happened to the remains of the individual between death and modern excavation.

This line of research has crystallized in a project entitled DEATHREVOL. The roots and evolution of the culture-of-death. A taphonomic research of the European Paleolithic record, which has been selected to receive financing under the European Union's Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation program, and which will be conducted over the next five years at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH).

“This is the first large-scale project centering on an exhaustive taphonomic study of the European fossil record”, explains the CENIEH taphonomy specialist Sala, a member of the Atapuerca research team and a researcher under the Juan de la Cierva-Incorporación program, who has obtained 1.5 million euros in funding for this project submitted to the 2020 call.

Carrying this out will require the participation of a large team of academics and a network of methods which include taphonomic analyses, virtual reconstructions for forensic analyses, studying spatial distribution patterns, the overall relations between different sites and mathematical models to interconnect the broad spectrum of data compiled.

Highly competitive projects

The European Research Council (ERC) projects known as “Starting Grants” are aimed at early-career researchers with post-doctoral experience of between 2 and 7 years, who have an outstanding research record and submit an excellent scientific project on the frontiers of knowledge. These are considered the most prestigious awards in the sphere of European research and, therefore, are highly competitive.

In the 2020 call, 436 researchers from 25 countries in the European Union and associated countries were selected, and 23 of the projects will be conducted at Spanish research centers. Of these 23, four are in the field of humanities and only one is centered on Paleoanthropology.

 

Press release from CENIEH on the Starting Grant for the research about the culture of death preceding Neanderthals and modern humans.


Amud 9 neandertal

Amud 9 is shown to be a Neandertal woman weighing 60 kg who lived in the Late Pleistocene

Amud 9 is shown to be a Neandertal woman weighing 60 kg who lived in the Late Pleistocene

The CENIEH researcher Adrián Pablos co-leads a paper on the morphology of a foot found at Amud Cave in Israel, establishing that this fossil known as Amud 9 can be taxonomically attributed as Neandertal, and obtaining this individual's sex, weight and height.
Amud 9 neandertal
Fósiles de Amud 9. Credits: Osborjn M. Pearson y Adrián Pablos

Adrián Pablos, a scientist at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), co-leads a paper published in PaleoAnthropology, the official journal of the PaleoAnthropology Society, looking at the morphology and anatomy of a partial foot recovered over 25 years ago at Amud Cave (Israel), which confirms that the individual Amud 9 was a Neandertal woman from the Late Pleistocene, with a stature of some 160-166 cm and weight of 60 kg.

Over the course of several excavations conducted in the twentieth century at Amud Cave, remains of at least 15 Neandertals were found. A systematic and detailed study of one of these individuals, Amud 9, has found that the fossil possesses the traits usually associated with Neanderthals in the different elements of the foot, tarsals, metatarsals and phalanges, which differ from those of modern humans, both fossil and recent.

“Most of these traits are related to the typical, exceptional robustness of the postcranial skeleton, that is, from the neck down, observed in the majority of Neandertals”, explains Pablos.

Sex, weight and height

Sex, weight and height estimates in fossil populations are normally based on the dimensions of the large leg bones. However, in the case of Amud 9, only a fragment of tibia, the talus or ankle bone, one metatarsal or instep bone, and several phalanges are conserved.

As no long leg bones have been found, the researchers applied different mathematical estimates based upon the foot bones, thus obtaining an approximation to important paleobiological parameters.

“Knowing parameters such as the body size and sex of this individual helps us learn a bit more about what the Neandertals were like”, he says.

The participants in this paper, entitled A partial Neandertal foot from the Late Middle Paleolithic of Amud Cave, Israel, are researchers from Spain (the CENIEH), the United States (University of New Mexico and Arizona State University), and Israel (Tel Aviv University and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem).

Full bibliographic information

Pearson, O.M., Pablos, A., Rak, Y., Hovers, E., 2020. A partial Neandertal foot from the Late Middle Paleolithic of Amud cave, Israel. PaleoAnthropology 2020, 98-125. http://paleoanthro.org/media/journal/content/PA20200098.pdf.
Press release from CENIEH

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

A study proposes the low genetic diversity of the Neanderthals as the principal cause of their extinction

New data support the theory of low genetic diversity of Neanderthals as the main cause of their extinction

Atles (Kr.98) recovered from the Krapina site that presents the anatomical variant known as Unclosed Transverse Foramen

What caused the disappearance of Homo neanderthalensis, a species that apparently had as many capabilities as Homo sapiens? There are several theories that try to explain it: climate, competition with Homo sapiens, low genetic diversity... A study in which the Universitat de València is participating analyses the first cervical vertebra of several Neanderthals and confirms that the genetic diversity of the population was low, which made it difficult for them to adapt to possible changes in the environment and, therefore, to survive. The research has been published in the Journal of Anatomy.

Professor Juan Alberto Sanchis Gimeno, from the Department of Human Anatomy and Embryology of the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry of the Universitat de València; the National Museum of Natural Sciences (MNCN-CSIC), and the National Centre for Research on Human Evolution (CENIEH) have participated in the study. Three vertebrae from the Krapina site (Croatia) have been analysed and material from other sites has been reviewed.

Neanderthals inhabited the European continent until barely 30,000 years ago and their disappearance remains a mystery. In order to know their genetic diversity, work has been done to decipher their genome, but also to analyze different anatomical characteristics of the fossil record of the species. "In this study we have focused on the anatomical variants of the first cervical vertebra, known as the atlas. The anatomical variants of this vertebra have a high relationship with genetic diversity: the higher the prevalence of this type of anatomical variants, the lower the population genetic diversity", explains MNCN researcher Carlos A. Palancar.

In Homo sapiens the anatomical variants of the atlas have been widely studied in recent years. In the case of modern humans, the atlas shows some of the different anatomical variants in almost 30% of cases. "However, probably due to the poor preservation of this cervical vertebra and the little material recovered in the fossil record, the atlas of Neanderthals have hardly been observed under this magnifying glass," says Juan Alberto Sanchis Gimeno, a researcher at the Universitat de València.

Recently, researchers from the MNCN Paleonanthropology Group determined the presence of different anatomical variants in the atlases of the Neandertals from the El Sidrón site (Asturias). In order to confirm the high prevalence of anatomical variants of this species, they thoroughly analyzed the fossil atlases of the Neandertals from the Krapina site (Croatia). "Krapina is a site of about 130,000 years old, compared to about 50,000 years old in El Sidrón. It is the site from which the largest number of Neanderthal remains have been recovered, which makes it a sample of special interest in the analysis of the genetic diversity of this species since potentially all the individuals belonged to the same population," points out Daniel García-Martínez, researcher at the CENIEH.

The study of the anatomy of the three atlases recovered in this site has revealed the presence of anatomical variants in two of them (66%). One of them, known as Unclosed Transverse Foramen, UTF, has a prevalence of only 10% in modern humans. "Checking the presence of these anatomical variants in Krapina, together with the review of other atlases presented to the scientific community that have not been analyzed under this perspective until now and that yield similar data (more than 50%), suggests that the number of variants in Neanderthals is significantly higher than that of current humans," says Palancar.

"These data support the theory that their genetic diversity was very low and confirm that this could be one of the causes of their disappearance," concludes MNCN researcher Markus Bastir.

Press release from Asociación RUVID; Source: Universidad de Valencia

A study proposes the low genetic diversity of the Neanderthals as the principal cause of their extinction

The CENIEH has participated in a paper published in the Journal of Anatomy on the first cervical vertebra, atlas, of several Neanderthals from the Krapina site (Croatia), which confirms that the genetic diversity of these populations was low

Neanderthals extinction
Atlas from Neanderthals found in Krapina site. Credits: Carlos A. Palancar et al

What caused the disappearance of Homo neanderthalensis, a species which apparently possessed as many capacities as Homo sapiens? There are several theories attempting to explain this: the climate, competition, low genetic diversity… Daniel Garcia Martínez, a researcher at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), has participated in a study published in the Journal of Anatomy, on the first cervical vertebra of several Neanderthals, which confirms that the genetic diversity of the population was low, thus hampering their capacity to adapt to possible changes in their environment and, therefore, their survival.

The Neanderthals inhabited the European continent until barely 30,000 years ago, and their disappearance continues to be a mystery. Work to decipher their genome has been carried out to determine their genetic diversity, as have analyses of different anatomical characteristics in the fossil record of the species.

“We have centered on the anatomical variants of the first cervical vertebra, known as the atlas. The anatomical variants of this vertebra are tightly bound up with genetic diversity: the greater the prevalence of this kind of anatomical variant, the lower the population genetic diversity", explains Carlos A. Palancar, a researcher at the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales.

In H. sapiens, the anatomical variants of the atlas have been extensively studied over recent years. With regard to modern humans, the atlas presents one or more of the different anatomical variations in almost 30% of cases.

El Sidrón

In this study, in which researchers from the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales in Madrid (MNCN-CSIC) and the Universidad de Valencia also participated, three vertebrae from the Krapina site (Croatia) were analyzed, and the material from other sites such as El Sidrón (Asturias) was reviewed.

Recently, researchers from the Paleoanthropology Group at the MNCN determined the presence of different anatomical variants in the atlases from the El Sidrón Neanderthals. With the objective of confirming the high prevalence of these anatomical variants in the species, they conducted exhaustive analyses of the Neanderthal fossil atlases from Krapina.

“Krapina is a site around 130,000 years old, compared with the age of 50,000 or so for El Sidrón. This is the site from which the highest number of Neanderthal remains has been recovered, which makes these a sample of particular interest when analyzing the genetic diversity of this species, as all the individuals may potentially have belonged to the same population”, says García-Martínez.

Full bibliographic information

Palancar C.A., García-Martínez D., Radovčić D., et al. (2020) Krapina atlases suggest a high prevalence of anatomical variations in the first cervical vertebra of Neanderthals. Journal of Anatomy DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/joa.13215
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


DNA from 31,000-year-old milk teeth leads to discovery of new group of ancient Siberians

DNA from 31,000-year-old milk teeth leads to discovery of new group of ancient Siberians

The two 31,000-year-old milk teeth found at the Yana Rhinoceros Horn Site in Russia which led to the discovery of a new group of ancient Siberians. Credit: Russian Academy of Sciences

Two children's milk teeth buried deep in a remote archaeological site in north eastern Siberia have revealed a previously unknown group of people lived there during the last Ice Age.

The finding was part of a wider study which also discovered 10,000 year-old human remains in another site in Siberia are genetically related to Native Americans - the first time such close genetic links have been discovered outside of the US.

The international team of scientists, led by Professor Eske Willerslev who holds positions at St John's College, University of Cambridge, and is director of The Lundbeck Foundation Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen, have named the new people group the 'Ancient North Siberians' and described their existence as 'a significant part of human history'.

The DNA was recovered from the only human remains discovered from the era - two tiny milk teeth - that were found in a large archaeological site found in Russia near the Yana River. The site, known as Yana Rhinoceros Horn Site (RHS), was found in 2001 and features more than 2,500 artefacts of animal bones and ivory along with stone tools and evidence of human habitation.

The discovery is published today (June 5 2019) as part of a wider study in Nature and shows the Ancient North Siberians endured extreme conditions in the region 31,000 years ago and survived by hunting woolly mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, and bison.

Professor Willerslev said: "These people were a significant part of human history, they diversified almost at the same time as the ancestors of modern day Asians and Europeans and it's likely that at one point they occupied large regions of the northern hemisphere."

Dr Martin Sikora, of The Lundbeck Foundation Centre for GeoGenetics and first author of the study, added: "They adapted to extreme environments very quickly, and were highly mobile. These findings have changed a lot of what we thought we knew about the population history of north eastern Siberia but also what we know about the history of human migration as a whole."

Researchers estimate that the population numbers at the site would have been around 40 people with a wider population of around 500. Genetic analysis of the milk teeth revealed the two individuals sequenced showed no evidence of inbreeding which was occurring in the declining Neanderthal populations at the time.

Siberia milk teeth America
Alla Mashezerskaya maps the artefacts in the area where two 31,000-year-old milk teeth were found. Credit: Elena Pavlova

The complex population dynamics during this period and genetic comparisons to other people groups, both ancient and recent, are documented as part of the wider study which analysed 34 samples of human genomes found in ancient archaeological sites across northern Siberia and central Russia.

Professor Laurent Excoffier from the University of Bern, Switzerland, said: "Remarkably, the Ancient North Siberians people are more closely related to Europeans than Asians and seem to have migrated all the way from Western Eurasia soon after the divergence between Europeans and Asians."

Scientists found the Ancient North Siberians generated the mosaic genetic make-up of contemporary people who inhabit a vast area across northern Eurasia and the Americas - providing the 'missing link' of understanding the genetics of Native American ancestry.

It is widely accepted that humans first made their way to the Americas from Siberia into Alaska via a land bridge spanning the Bering Strait which was submerged at the end of the last Ice Age. The researchers were able to pinpoint some of these ancestors as Asian people groups who mixed with the Ancient North Siberians.

Professor David Meltzer, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, one of the paper's authors, explained: "We gained important insight into population isolation and admixture that took place during the depths of the Last Glacial Maximum - the coldest and harshest time of the Ice Age - and ultimately the ancestry of the peoples who would emerge from that time as the ancestors of the indigenous people of the Americas."

This discovery was based on the DNA analysis of a 10,000 year-old male remains found at a site near the Kolyma River in Siberia. The individual derives his ancestry from a mixture of Ancient North Siberian DNA and East Asian DNA, which is very similar to that found in Native Americans. It is the first time human remains this closely related to the Native American populations have been discovered outside of the US.

Professor Willerslev added: "The remains are genetically very close to the ancestors of Paleo-Siberian speakers and close to the ancestors of Native Americans. It is an important piece in the puzzle of understanding the ancestry of Native Americans as you can see the Kolyma signature in the Native Americans and Paleo-Siberians. This individual is the missing link of Native American ancestry."

 

Press release from the St John's College, University of Cambridge

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Press release from University College London


Denisovans Tibetan Plateau Baishiya Karst Cave Xiahe mandible

First hominins on the Tibetan Plateau were Denisovans

First hominins on the Tibetan Plateau were Denisovans

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

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

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

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

Mandible from Baishiya Karst Cave

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

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

Primitive shape and large molars

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

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

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

 

 

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

Tibetan plateau first occupied by middle Pleistocene Denisovans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Press release from the Chinese Academy of Sciences