Neanderthals ate meat and more meat, study suggests

June 12, 2000 - Nando

If a Neanderthal walked into a hamburger joint today, he'd probably order a double burger, plain. And hold the bun.

A new study of 28,000-year-old Neanderthal bones suggests the ancient hominid ate meat -- lots of it, and very little else.

"Their diet was about 90 percent meat," said Paul B. Pettitt of Oxford University in England, co-author of a study appearing Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "This means they were efficient hunters and not just scavengers as some have suggested."

A lifestyle so centered on meat, said Pettitt, means that the lowbrowed, hairy Neanderthal was able to organize complex hunts that brought down big and dangerous game.

"This study suggests that the difference between Neanderthals and modern humans was only a matter of degree," said Erik Trinkaus, a Washington University in St. Louis anthropologist and co-author of the study. "Modern humans were probably more efficient in terms of their organization, but the Neanderthals were very close."

Neanderthal-like hominids first appeared in Europe, probably migrating from Africa, around 300,000 years ago, Pettitt said. The "classic" period of Neanderthal presence in Europe started about 120,000 years ago. By about 28,000 years ago, the Neanderthal was gone from the fossil record, he said.

Modern humans arrived in Europe about 32,000 years ago, about 4,000 years before the Neanderthal disappeared.

Some experts have suggested the more primitive Neanderthal was simply overwhelmed and outhunted by his more sophisticated cousin. Others say the Neanderthal was biologically absorbed by early modern humans and disappeared as a distinct and separate species.

Trinkaus said the new study does not settle that debate, but it does show the Neanderthal was not just simple, stupid and brutish.

"This study implies a much higher degree of social organization complexity than is frequently attributed to the Neanderthals," Trinkaus said. "They were much more equal to modern humans in many ways."

One big difference, though, was diet.

Studies of bones from the early modern humans in Europe suggest they had a more varied diet, eating smaller animals, such as rabbits, and lots of fish - up to 30 percent of their diet.

But for the Neanderthal, it was meat, meat and more meat.

Europe of 28,000 years ago was enjoying a warm period between two extremes of the ice age, Pettitt said. The plains of Europe were grassy and probably included vast herds of animals, which he calls "lawn mowers."

As a result, the Neanderthal hunter preyed on mammoth, horse, deer, woolly rhino and other large animals.

When conditions changed and fewer of these animals were available, the Neanderthal may have had a more difficult time adjusting than did the competing humans who lived on a more varied diet, Pettitt said.

The researchers probed the diet of the Neanderthal by measuring the isotopic ratios of nitrogen in skulls and jawbones recovered from a cave in Croatia.

"Our bones record the isotope signatures of the foods we have eaten in our lifetimes," co-author Fred H. Smith of Northern Illinois University said in a statement. "By measuring these isotope signatures in fossil bones, we can reconstruct aspects of the diets."

Bones formed from a diet rich in meat contain a high ratio of an isotope called nitrogen-15, Trinkaus said. The nitrogen-15 ratio of Neanderthal, he said, was almost like that of an African lion, which means a diet of meat and almost nothing else.

This is in contrast to the modern American diet, Trinkaus said, which is 20 percent to 30 percent meat or other animal products. The rest of the diet comes from vegetables, fruits and other plants.

Woven cloth dates back 27,000 years

Clay bearing a textile imprint together with a cast

June 14, 2000 - BBC

Woven clothing was being produced on looms 27,000 years ago, far earlier than had been thought, scientists say.

It had been thought that the first farmers developed weaving 5,000 to 10,000 years ago.

But Professor Olga Soffer of the University of Illinois, is about to publish details in the journal Current Anthropology of 90 fragments of clay that have impressions from woven fibres.

Prof Soffer first revealed her findings in previous research when she said that a 25,000 year old figurine was wearing a woven hat.

If confirmed, this work will change our understanding of distant ancestors, the so-called Ice Age hunters of the Upper Palaeolithic Stone Age.

Accidental imprint

The evidence was obtained from a number of sites in the Czech Republic.

They were the sporadic homes of the Gravettian people who roamed between Southern Russia and Spain between 22,000 and 29,000 years ago scratching out a living on a semi-frozen landscape.

Some of the fibre impressions may have been made accidentally, such as by sitting on a fresh clay floor or when wet clay was carried in woven bags.

"Other impressions may have been caused by deliberate action, such as lining a basket with clay to make it watertight," said Professor Soffer.

A detailed examination of the impressions reveals a large variety of weaving techniques. There are open and closed twines, plain weave and nets. Professor Soffer told BBC News Online that twining can be done by hand but plain weave needed a loom.

It may be that many stone artefacts found in settlements may not be objects of art as had been supposed but parts of an ancient loom, which should now be considered as the first machine to be made after the wheel and aids such as the axe, club, and flint knife.

Women's work

This research will force a re-evaluation of our view of ancient man, who lived tens of thousands of years ago, before the last Ice Age had ended and before the invention of agriculture.

The traditional view is of the male Ice Age hunters working in groups to kill large prey such as mammoths. But this may be a distorted and incomplete view of their lives.

All that scientists have from these ancient times are mostly solid remains such as stone, ivory and bone. Now they have evidence of textiles.

The discovery that they developed weaving as early as 27,000 years ago means that we must consider the role that women and children may have played more carefully.

The possibility that they made nets has fascinating implications according to Professor Soffer. It may be that nets were used by women and children to catch small prey such as hares and foxes.

By catching food this way, women and children could have made all the difference to their communities' food budgets, allowing a surplus to be generated that permitted society to grow.

Further revelations are to be expected in this area of research. There are recent reports that fragments of burnt textiles have been found adhering to pieces of flint.

Skulls Point to First Emigration 'Out of Africa'

May 12, 2000 - Reuters

Three skulls dug from under a medieval Georgian town and dating back 1.7 million years may represent the first pre-humans who migrated out of Africa and into Europe, researchers said on Thursday.

The skulls look like those of early humans who lived in East Africa at the same time, and a wealth of tools found at the site look like tools made by the African pre-humans.

This is surprising because archeologists had believed the species of hominid, called Homo ergaster, was too primitive to have made the long and difficult journey from African savanna to the challenging terrain of Europe.

``These constitute the first well-documented humans that came out of Africa,'' Reid Ferring, a geologist and archeologist at the University of North Texas at Denton who worked on the study, said in a telephone interview.

``We suggest that these hominids may represent the same species that initially dispersed from Africa and from which the Asian branch of H. erectus was derived,'' the team of U.S., Georgian, French and German scientists wrote in their report, published in the journal Science.

``We are dealing with people who are very closely related to folks in East Africa at the time,'' Ferring said.

The finding suggests the hominids moved quickly out of Africa across the Levant, what is now Syria and Lebanon, into Turkey and up into Georgia.

Ferring said Homo ergaster falls in between the more primitive Homo habilis and Homo erectus, a robust creature with advanced stone tools that just about everyone thought was the first to move out of Africa to populate Asia and Europe.

Hominids Ready To Make The Jump Out Of Africa

It had been assumed that hominids had to develop more physically and technologically to make the jump out of Africa into the strange and extreme terrain of Eurasia.

``It appears that people were ready to get out of Africa earlier than we thought,'' Ferring said.

``In my mind, also, they were advanced in ways that don't show up in their stone tools,'' he added. This would include the use of wood, but also social development.

The hominids would have had to be organized to survive at 3,000 feet (1,000 meters) elevation, where it snows heavily in winter. ``We are not in Africa at all,'' Ferring said.

And there would have been lots of them. ``It looks like this was a pretty substantial occupation. These people made a lot of tools,'' Ferring said. ``It raises the issue of were these people hunters.''

Susan Anton of the University of Florida in Gainesville thinks it is probable.

``The argument that we're making is that during that time in Africa, the savanna is expanding and there is a greater availability of 'protein on the hoof','' she said in a statement.

``With the appearance of Homo, we see bigger bodies that require more energy to run, and therefore need these higher quality sources of protein as fuel.'' The researchers had a run of luck, first in finding that the site, at Dmanisi, about 50 miles southwest of Tblisi, was so intact.

``It was a very nice surprise to find these skulls,'' said David Lordkipanidze of the Republic of Georgia State Museum. They were in good enough condition to compare them with East African finds, a happy event for researchers who often have little more than splintery fragments to work with.

Magnetic Flip-Flop Provides Clues

And the site, under a medieval town built on layers of basalt laid down during volcanic activity 1.85 million years ago, offered many clues as to its age. One was provided by the periodic flip-flopping of the Earth's magnetic poles, which leaves a record in the rock.

"We know that 1.78 million years ago the poles shifted from normal to reverse,'' Ferring said.

The basalt is ``normal'' but the deposits on top which contain the artifacts and remains, are reversed.

This geomagnetic evidence helped them check the other evidence provided by traditional dating of layers and by radiographic dating.

The dates alone would make the hominids the first in Europe. ``I don't think anyone, pushed into a corner, would say these are the first, because someone will always come along next week and find something even older,'' Ferring stressed. ``We don't want to get into a 'first' game.''

Scientist Makes Dramatic Apeman Find

April 25, 2000 - Reuters - Johannesburg

South African scientists are set to reveal details about the most complete apeman skull ever excavated and scientifically described, shedding light on humanity's distant origins.

The 1.5 million to two million-year-old skull was found in a previously unreported site a few miles from the renowned Sterkfontein Caves north of Johannesburg, where the most complete arm and hand of an apeman dating back 3.3 million years was recently unearthed.

``The teeth have been almost perfectly preserved -- they are a marvelous set of choppers,'' Dr Graham Baker, editor of the South African Journal of Science (SAJS), told Reuters in a telephone interview Tuesday.

An article on the skull will be published later this month in the SAJS.

Dr Andre Keyser, the retired geologist who made the previously unannounced find, will outline details Wednesday at the University of Witwatersrand, where the skull will be placed on public display for the first time.

Keyser will reveal the hominid's scientific name and the exact location of the discovery.

Baker said scientists believe the skull did not belong to a direct ancestor of modern humans but to a line of hominids that eventually became extinct.

Scientists hope its similarities to and differences from humanity's ancestors, and the reasons for its extinction, will provide clues to humanity's march up the evolutionary ladder.

The reasons for hominid extinctions are a matter of debate in the scientific community. Some speculate that modern man at a very early stage may have shown his dark side by eliminating potential rivals.

The Sterkfontein Caves and the surrounding areas -- declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO -- have a rich history in the search for human roots and bolster Africa's claim to being the ''cradle of humanity.''

The first fossil of an adult apeman ever discovered was found at Sterkfontein in 1936 by Dr Robert Bloom.

The recent discovery of the complete 3.3 million-year-old arm and hand greatly excited the scientific community, as the primate's skull is very ape-like but the hand bones have more in common with modern man.

It is from discoveries such as those in and around Sterkfontein -- where dolomite caves preserve bones through calcification -- that scientists hope to eventually piece together when and why humans and apes parted company on the evolutionary tree.

Humans not descended from Neanderthals - study says

March 28, 2000 - AP

Modern humans are not descended from Neanderthals but co-existed with them about 40,000 years ago, scientists said Tuesday.

An analysis of DNA extracted from the ribs of a 29,000 year-old Neanderthal infant buried in a cave in southern Russia showed it was too distinct to be related to humans.

"There wasn't much, if any mixture, between Neanderthals and modern humans," William Goodwin, of the University of Glasgow, told Reuters.

"Though they co-existed we can't find any evidence of genetic material being passed from Neanderthals to modern humans," he added.

The study, reported in the science journal Nature, also supports the "Out of Africa" theory of modern human evolution -- that modern humans evolved from a common ancestor in Africa and spread across the world around 100,000 years ago.

Research verifies early Findings

The bones from the Neanderthal infant were very well preserved and came from among the last of the Neanderthals who died out about 30,000 years ago.

Exactly what happened to them is a mystery. Various theories suggest they were either killed, lost out to competitors or simply absorbed by modern humans.

The research by Goodwin and his Swedish and Russian colleagues is also important because it verifies the findings of the first analysis of Neanderthal DNA in 1997.

That study of DNA taken from the first Neanderthal skeleton found in the Feldhofer Cave in Germany in 1856 supports the theory that modern humans replaced Neanderthals.

The DNA sequence from the infant was very similar to the specimen from the Feldhofer Cave -- proving both are genuinely Neanderthals and that there was little diversity among them, according to Goodwin.

"If they had been very diverse at the DNA level they could have encompassed modern humans. The fact that these two Neanderthals are closely related and not related to modern humans implies that they don't have the diversity to encompass a modern human gene pool," said Goodwin.

DNA comparisons also showed that different ethnic groups do not have any links to Neanderthals.

"We compared the amount of difference between the Neanderthal sequence and a group of European, African and Asians. There is no real difference.... That suggests they are not more closely related to either one of those races," said Goodwin.

In a commentary on the research in Nature, Matthias Hoss, of the Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research, said the two studies provide the most reliable proof so far of the authenticity of ancient DNA sequences.

The similar features of the two samples "argues against the idea that modern Europeans are at least partly of Neanderthal origin," he said.

Tiny bones tell evolution story

March 17, 2000 - BBC

Tiny ankle bones, about 42 million years old and the size of a grain of rice, are yielding important clues about the evolution of ourselves and our close relatives, the apes and monkeys.

The bones, which were dug up in China, are claimed to come from a creature that sits at the bottom of our particular branch of the evolutionary tree.

Called Eosimias, it fits in somewhere between prosimians, such as lemurs and tarsiers which leap and cling to trees, and anthropoids, such as monkeys, apes and humans which walk on four or two limbs.

Professor Daniel Gebo of Northern Illinois University and colleagues describe the fossil bones in the journal Nature. They recovered the fossils from a limestone quarry 160 km (100 miles) west of Shanghai and along the Yellow River, about 560 km (350 miles) southeast of Beijing.

50-50 creature

"They are half prosimians and half anthropoids. They really do make that connection. Much of the debate in the field has been to figure out which of those early prosimian fossil primates gave rise to anthropoids."

"We needed something that is 50-50 and that's what we think Eosimias is."

Fossils from this creature are rare.

We know very little about it. All scientists have had to go on are a few teeth, jawbones, one piece of a skull and guesswork.

The discovery of other parts of the skeleton - especially parts of the limbs - will help scientists understand what the creature looked like as well as make deductions about its lifestyle.

Some doubt

The bones suggest that the creature, like anthropoids in general, tended to use horizontal foot postures, and walk on horizontal surfaces, more than would be typical of prosimians.

"The most interesting aspect of these new foot bones is that they represent a mosaic," Professor Gebo said. "They possess primitive lower-primate features as well as several advanced or higher-primate characteristics."

But there are doubts. Some scientists question whether the bones come from Eosimias at all.

Professor Gebo and colleagues feel confident that they do.

They say the bones come from the same deposits that have yielded only two other creatures, and that the teeth and jaws of only one of these - Eosimias itself - would have been sufficiently small to match the tiny ankle fossils.

Article 2 Science Daily

Stone Age man wasn't so dumb

February 14, 2000 - BBC

Archaeologists are rethinking our cultural origins in the light of new discoveries in South Africa.

In a cramped cave that looks out across the swell of the Indian Ocean, South African archaeologists are unearthing evidence of Middle Stone Age people well ahead of their time. The prehistoric occupants were painting their bodies red for rituals and carving abstract symbols. They were fishing and using bone awls, perhaps for leather working.

Body art: Masai warriors wearing ochre body paint in use as far back as the Middle Stone Age

This is a South African team's interpretation of life in Blombos Cave some time between 80,000 and 100,000 years ago. If correct, many prehistorians will be inclined to change their views about the origins of modern human culture and mind. Our ancestors should not have been doing these sophisticated things for another 40,000 years at least.

The cave is high in a limestone cliff on a wild stretch of the Southern Cape coast of South Africa. The first hints of something extraordinary came in 1993 with the discovery, by Dr Chris Henshilwood of the South African Museum, of stone artefacts known as bifacial points. They look like spear tips and some are symmetrical, shaped like leaves. Their most remarkable aspect is that they've been made in a style that has only been seen before in Europe, dated at 19,000 years old.

Further excavations highlighted the Blombos people's sophistication - implements of ground and polished animal bone. At 80,000 to 100,000 years old, these are among the oldest bone tools in Africa, and much older than shaped tools discovered elsewhere. Although our ancestors worked stone 2.5 million years ago, they learnt relatively late that bone could be fashioned into something useful. But, as with stone technology, it looks as though the idea started in sub-Saharan Africa.

Fishing is another activity humans invented late in prehistory, and Blombos has the earliest evidence for that, too. Dr Judy Sealy of the University of Cape Town says the Middle Stone Age cave floor layers contain fish bones. Fishing is thought to be a much later innovation, so the question at Blombos is whether these fish were caught, or scavenged. If people picked up dead fish from the shore, different species should be represented. The fish in the cave have been identified by Cedric Poggenpoel as the remains of only a few species, so are likely to have been caught.

At Blombos, we have African hunter-gatherers at 80,000 years ago doing many things associated with the Late Stone Age "cultural explosion" 40,000 to 30,000 years ago - when Homo sapiens arrived in Europe for the first time. In fact, the notion of a recent origin of cultural modernity has been under attack anyway. American researchers have found barbed bone harpoons and catfish remains at another, albeit controversial, site dated 80,000 to 100,000 years old in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are other sites in Africa of similar age with some elements of the Blombos cultural package.

Further afield, it looks as though Homo sapiens was smart enough to travel by sea from Indonesia to Australia about 60,000 years ago. The fossil remains, and genetic analyses of living people, point to an origin for our species somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa about 150,000 years ago, and the first dispersals of Homo sapiens out of Africa perhaps 50,000 years later. However, the archaeological record in the near East indicates that the earliest migrants weren't behaving any more fancily than the Neanderthal people who had already been in the Levant and Europe for about 200,000 years. Consequently, there is much debate about when and where anatomically modern bodies started acting and thinking in modern ways.

For archaeologists, symbolic behaviour - manifest in art and body decoration - is the great hallmark of modern behaviour and mind. Some even argue that the appearance of symbolism correlates with the origin of syntactical language in our ancestors. The most obvious examples of symbolism are the carved figurines and cave paintings of Upper Palaeolithic Europe (African Later Stone Age). But there is evidence of symbolic behaviour much earlier at Blombos. Ochre, and lots of it.

Ochre is natural red iron oxide, and is used by hunter-gatherers today as a pigment for body paint. Dr Henshilwood believes the occupants of the Blombos cave used it for the same purpose. The ochre here is not the oldest on record. Small amounts show up at African sites as old as 300,000 years, but its occurrence is sporadic until about 120,000 years ago. Thereafter, in southern Africa, it appears more regularly and seems to have played a more important role in Stone Age life.

At Blombos, the archaeologists have found hundreds of lumps, as well as powder traces on stone and bone tools. Many pieces have been ground and worked. "The most intensively ground pieces take the form of crayons," says Ian Watts, a British archaeologist studying Blombos ochre. "Some are beautiful and the implication of such honed points is that they were used for design."

There is even one piece with a carved cross-hatched design - three straight lines with another set of three at a diagonal to them. "This," says Dr Henshilwood, "is undoubtedly a symbolic act - the earliest evidence in the world for that kind of symbolism." It reinforces the South African team's belief that the ochre was for symbolic body decoration. Dr Henshilwood imagines the Middle Stone Agers would have ground powder from the raw chunks and then mixed it with animal fat. They would have smeared the bright red mixture on their bodies for rituals.

Explanations for why our ancestors took to painting their bodies are speculative. Dr Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at University College, London, and author of a forthcoming book, The Mating Mind, believes the custom began as a way of attracting sexual partners. "In many traditional societies today," he says, "people only start to paint their bodies once they've reached adolescence." The practice tails off once they have passed the peak of their sexual lives and settled down to family life.

Dr Miller believes it makes evolutionary sense to pick the best body decorator. As well as choosing someone who looks good, you're also selecting valuable genetic endowments for any children you have; genes for assets such as dexterity, creativity, conscientiousness and resourcefulness, because ochre can be hard to find. These are traits for survival as well as for artistry.

A competing hypothesis gives women the credit for inventing body painting. It proposes they did so as a method of birth control about 300,000 years ago, when ochre first appears in the archaeological record. At this time, the brain size of our ancestors was rising steeply towards modern levels and there was a prolonged period of childhood dependency.

Modern human babies take much longer than other infant species to develop to the point when they can look after themselves. As brains became large, it would have been advantageous for a mother to have some means of limiting the number of dependant children on her hands at any one time. That would bolster the survival chances of her family and, therefore, her genes. Camilla Power of University College London proposed that related women smeared themselves with red ochre to mimic menstrual blood and make it difficult for men to distinguish cycling from non-cycling females.

An extra zap of girl power is added to this hypothesis at 100,000-120,000 years ago, according to Ian Watts, when ochre use was more frequent and widespread in southern Africa. At this time, all the women in a group painted themselves red for regular sex strikes: the message to the men being not to hang around, expecting sex, but to go and do something useful such as hunting, fishing or collecting ochre.