Israel Hershkovitz and colleagues report in Nature today on a partial cranial vault from Manot Cave, Israel. The key arguments in their paper are well-expressed in the abstract:
Here we describe a partial calvaria, recently discovered at Manot Cave (Western Galilee, Israel) and dated to 54.7 ± 5.5 kyr BP (arithmetic mean ± 2 standard deviations) by uranium–thorium dating, that sheds light on this crucial event. The overall shape and discrete morphological features of the Manot 1 calvaria demonstrate that this partial skull is unequivocally modern. It is similar in shape to recent African skulls as well as to European skulls from the Upper Palaeolithic period, but different from most other early anatomically modern humans in the Levant. This suggests that the Manot people could be closely related to the first modern humans who later successfully colonized Europe. Thus, the anatomical features used to support the ‘assimilation model’ in Europe might not have been inherited from European Neanderthals, but rather from earlier Levantine populations. Moreover, at present, Manot 1 is the only modern human specimen to provide evidence that during the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic interface, both modern humans and Neanderthals contemporaneously inhabited the southern Levant, close in time to the likely interbreeding event with Neanderthals.
The date of the specimen is based on a thin layer of calcite on the skull’s surface, which the authors argue probably happened very soon after the skull was deposited in the cave.
The morphology of the skull is very comparable to those that come from the early Upper Paleolithic of Europe. Its parietal bones bulge outward and upward into distinct bosses, which place its maximum breadth relatively high on the parietal bones, not at the midpoint of the skull as in Neandertals. But like many early Upper Paleolithic crania, it has Neandertal-like features. In the case of Manot 1, the occipital bone projects backward into a bun-like structure and there is a slight erosion of the surface of bone at the cranial rear called a suprainiac fossa.
For comparison, here is a lateral view of Mladeč 1, an early Upper Paleolithic specimen from the Czech Republic, dating to around 36,000 years ago:
These skulls have a very similar profile, especially in the occipital bone where they both have a bun-like projection. It’s not quite the same as many Neandertals but is within the range of Neandertal morphology and fairly uncommon otherwise in modern humans.
Manot 1 is nearly 15,000 years older than the oldest early modern human remains in Europe, the skeletal remains from Oase, Romania. It is also substantially older than other skeletal remains from North Africa that share some of its anatomical features. It is nearly 10,000 years older than the Ust’-Ishim femur, the earliest specimen for which genetics provides evidence of close affinity with modern Europeans. The Ust’-Ishim analysis last year by Qiaomei Fu and colleagues (2014) estimated based on haplotype lengths that the mixture between Neandertal and contemporary early modern ancestral populations probably had been underway between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago. I previously wrote about many of the reasons why that estimate should be taken cautiously (“The genome from Ust’-Ishim”). Still, a specimen like Manot 1 from 55,000 years ago in Israel is obviously interesting because it may have a member of the population with maximal intermixture.
There are some interesting history of anthropology observations to make about this paper and the reception to it. Most anthropologists now accept that early Upper Paleolithic European specimens, like the Oase and Mladeč samples, have features that reflect ancestry from Neandertals. As recently as five years ago, many anthropologists still rejected that such similarities necessarily reflect Neandertal ancestry, now this seems to be utterly uncontroversial.
It’s time to start moving the goalposts. An honest appraisal of the morphology of “Neandertals” of Israel and Syria, who lived between 80,000 and 50,000 years ago or so, shows that they differ in many ways from the Neandertals of Europe. Until now, the contrasts have been focused on the differences between these skeletal materials and the supposedly “modern” skeletal remains from Skhul and Qafzeh caves, which are somewhat earlier, between 120,000 and 90,000 years ago. But as we have found for early modern human remains in Africa, the early modern sample from Levant has a large representation of features otherwise found in archaic humans. And the Neandertals of the Levant have a large representation of non-Neandertal features. Formulating this population history as an alternation of two binary populations was always too simplistic. The real story must have been more complex.
It will be interesting to learn more about the morphology of the population of which Manot 1 was a member. Its anatomy provides a possible connection between the Upper Paleolithic of Europe and the somewhat later Epipaleolithic of North Africa, two samples that share some anatomical similarities. The potential of population movement from the Levant into North Africa and Europe, or elsewhere into West Africa, is very interesting.
The sticking point raised by Hershkovitz and colleagues is how much mixture may have happened within Europe versus in West Asia. Manot 1 does not reject the hypothesis that later Europeans also mixed with European Neandertals by some amount, but it helps substantiate that the Neandertal genes of today’s Europeans may derive from population contacts within West Asia that happened long before the Upper Paleolithic in Europe. As for early Upper Paleolithic Europeans, we now know that their genes are represented in a much smaller degree in Neolithic and living Europeans than we might once have assumed. To find out more about the dynamics of those earliest modern Europeans, we’ll have to have more data directly from them.
And Manot 1 does not help to solve the biggest outstanding problem of all: What happened to the East? A population of mixing Neandertals and early modern humans in Israel 55,000 years ago probably was not early enough to give rise to the modern people of South Asia and Southeast Asia. It leaves unanswered many archaeological and genetic issues related to those populations. There is much more to say about that, which must wait…
Israel Hershkovitz, Ofer Marder, Avner Ayalon, Miryam Bar-Matthews, Gal Yasur and many others. (2015) Levantine cranium from Manot Cave (Israel) foreshadows the first European modern humans. Nature doi:10.1038/nature14134
Fu, Q. and many others. (2014). Genome sequence of a 45,000-year-old modern human from western Siberia. Nature, 514, 445-450. doi:10.1038/nature13810
From the bottom of the sea this week comes another new fossil hominin. The specimen is a partial mandible, described in Nature Communications, by Chun-Hsiang Chang and colleagues working from the National Museum of Natural Science of Taiwan. It’s a beautiful piece of bone, found in fishing nets off the Pinghu Islands in the Strait of Taiwan, in waters between 60 and 120 meters deep.
The Taiwan Strait is nearly 200 kilometers wide and, like a large swath of the South China Sea, was dry land during the low sea level periods of the Pleistocene. The waters off the Taiwan coast are heavily fished, and fishing nets in these shallow waters often dredge material off the sea bed. Chang and colleagues illustrate some of the collection of fossil bone that has resulted from this dredging, for example ancient elephants:
This is not the first hominin specimen to be dredged from the seabed. The first, known as the Zeeland Ridges Neandertal specimen, was described in 2009 (Neandertal dredged from the North Sea). These undersea sites have incredible potential. In the long run, I expect we’ll be able to develop robotic methods to excavate them in situ, opening a huge avenue for future discoveries.
But at present, the problem is lack of context. With no collagen preserved in the bone, and no means of finding out where they lay within a stratographic column, only the animal bones found within the same area can help determine their possible age. Other animal bones are not “associated” with the mandible, the question is whether multiple geological deposits are being sampled over a fairly broad area. Chang and colleagues describe their process of establishing whether the Penghu 1 mandible is the same age as fossil hyena bones found in the Penghu channel, which involved testing their relative fluorine content—the same method that eventually established that the Piltdown skull and jaw did not have the same age as the ancient fauna purportedly found beside them. In this case, the mandible matches the surrounding fauna well enough to suppose that they are not samping vastly different time periods. The hyenas are a variety that existed in the region mainly after 400,000 years ago, up to the Late Pleistocene, so the authors infer that the mandible probably dates to this later component of the Asian Pleistocene fossil record. That’s where it will stand for the foreseeable future.
The morphology of the mandible doesn’t preclude anything about its date or relationships. It has a sloping mandibular symphysis and no projecting chin, and it has a very transversely thick mandibular body, especially in the part that has the molar teeth. The molars and premolars are relatively large, and although the first molar is worn to the point where its dimensions are not quite representative of the original crown size, the second molar is quite large in comparison with most Pleistocene human samples. Such features mark it as an archaic human rather than a recent modern human mandible.
The obvious question, once you eliminate that it is the jaw of a very recent person, is where does it fit in the fossil record? I’ve seen some stories where the major takeaway is that this is “surprisingly primitive” for its age, or that it may be a new, unidentified species. That’s going beyond the evidence, considering what we already know about the variation in Middle Pleistocene East Asia. For one thing, the specimen lacks a third molar, so the large size of the second molar has to be put into perspective. M3 agenesis is uncommon in archaic humans (in contrast to modern humans, where it is quite common), and one way that M3 can fail to develop is if the segmentation of the initial tissue layer that gives rise to the tooth germs goes a bit differently than normal. That means that we should be cautious in comparing tooth sizes. Likewise, the mandibular robusticity in part reflects the use of the mandible during development. The paper itself is appropriately hesitant to make any phylogenetic conclusions based on these features. I take enormous pleasure in reports like this that find new things and try to fit them into the story of our origins, but sometimes the story isn’t simple enough for headline writers. This is one of those cases.
To many anthropologists the key question is whether this at last could be another Denisovan specimen, giving some bony morphology to this population only known from genetics. That’s another question for which some perspective would be helpful. What we know from genetics is that the Neandertals had one or more sister populations that were just as different as modern humans but lived somewhere outside of Europe and the Central Asian steppe. This population was among the ancestors of living Asians and Native Americans, and made a larger contribution to peoples that today inhabit Australia, New Guinea and Oceania more broadly. We also know that the ancient genome from Denisova is a fairly distant relative to the population (or populations) that became ancestors of many of these living people.
There are lots of candidates for such populations. Obviously China is one place that may have had a diversity of ancient hominins, but so is India, Southeast Asia, and even western parts of Asia. Remember that we have no genetics from the supposed Neandertals of western Asia, like Shanidar and Amud. With no morphology associated with the Denisovan genome we have so far, my first hypothesis would be that the population may have been morphologically very much like Neandertals, maybe even sharing some of their supposedly distinctive characteristics. I leave open the interesting possibility that morphologically different populations, like the fossil sample of the Chinese and Javan Middle Pleistocene, were not Denisovans themselves but related to us in a different way. Certainly we have hints that a diversity of populations existed in the Middle Pleistocene of Africa, and I see no reason why the large hominin-suitable habitats of East and South Asia would have been less diverse. Traditionally, many of the skeletal remains in these samples have been referred to Homo erectus—indeed, we now have reason to think that the type specimen of Homo erectus probably dates closer to 500,000 years ago than a million. But the concept of Homo erectus that has stuck with us since Dubois no longer fits the data on the diversity and interactions of archaic people. There were more things afoot in Asia than a series of simple bifurcations between Homo erectus, Neandertal, Denisovan and modern populations is going to explain.
I think it is likely that there were more populations, not fewer. And I think it likely that they interacted in complex ways, not simple ones. The intensity of gene flow that genetics has already shown us among these archaic forms must suggest to us that these populations had a pattern of interactions more interesting than the old story of colonization, splitting and extinction. So I doubt that any particular Chinese specimen will end up being a Denisovan, at least not in the sense that many now are using the term. I rather imagine that a broad spectrum of “Denisovan” populations once existed, collectively much more diverse than Neandertals. I also think it likely that either East or South Asia housed some populations even more different from Neandertals than the presently-known Denisovan genome.
In that vein, the Penghu mandible could certainly represent diversity that we had not previously discovered. Or it may be a close relative of Chinese populations that are already represented in the Middle Pleistocene record, but that will have a new place in the human story. There is already a good degree of diversity in the Middle Pleistocene Chinese sample that people usually overlook. They are showing us alternate experiments in the lifeways of ancient humans as they encountered new environments and new peoples.
Chang, Chun-Hsiang, Yousuke Kaifu, Masanaru Takai, Reiko T. Kono, Rainer Grün, Shuji Matsu’ura, Les Kinsley, and Liang-Kong Lin (2015) The first archaic Homo from Taiwan. Nature Communications 6:6037 doi:10.1038/ncomms7037
Rose Eveleth has a long story in The Atlantic about the landscape of DNA ancestry for American Indians: “Genetic Testing and Tribal Identity”. This is not a one-dimensional subject in which people are either for or against more research. Some topics of study are widely accepted across the U.S., while some groups resist any attempt to study ancestry using DNA. Eveleth quotes a number of anthropological geneticists who are really exceptional in their ability to work with tribal groups to find common ground.
There are many passages worth quoting in the story, and I would recommend it for use in courses. I’ll just quote one:
These are questions that anyone who gives their genetic material to scientists has to think about. And for Native Americans, who have witnessed their artifacts, remains, and land taken away, shared, and discussed among academics for centuries, concerns about genetic appropriation carry ominous reminders about the past. “I might trust this guy, but 100 years from now who is going to get the information? What are people going to do with that information? How can they twist it? Because that’s one thing that seems to happen a lot,” says Nick Tipon, the vice-chairman of the Sacred Sites Committee of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, an organization that represents people of Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo descent.
That’s a valid concern, especially considering the number of old samples that rest in laboratory freezers, gathered under consent guidelines that wouldn’t be approved today.
There is no simple story to be written here. Some Native American peoples are very enthusiastic about DNA research, and some American Indian individuals are anthropologists working with DNA. Many tribal groups have advisory councils or other governance bodies devoted to archaeological and anthropological inquiries, sometimes facilitating the research efforts of anthropologists and other times advocating against research. And in too many cases, ancient human remains have become part of political games that further erode trust in the process of scientific discovery.
Eveleth did a great job finding anthropologists and geneticists who work in this area, and their perspectives should be shared. For example, Dennis O’Rourke speaks eloquently about his process of research and the long-term relationships he has built with tribal groups.
Dennis O’Rourke is a researcher at the University of Utah. His work focuses on ancient DNA and migration. In other words, it is exactly the kind of research that many indigenous people object to. But O’Rourke works collaboratively with tribes who are interested in what he’s doing. He told me that he brings up the possible issues with ancestral DNA at the very beginning when he starts working with tribes. He calls it a “cultural risk,” the fact that what he finds in his work about where the tribe came from might be at odds with their history. Some tribes, he says, worry about it, while others don’t. “It’s important to be very clear about what my interest in the research questions are,” he said, “so if they’re not of interest to the communities they can make that judgment very early and I don’t waste their time in trying to pursue things that aren’t acceptable.”
In archaeology, it is not always possible to avoid problems. The Kennewick skeleton was unearthed in 1996, became embroiled in a political and legal morass for nearly 10 years, and remains a focus of contention. Skeletal materials must be assessed when they are found, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) sets out conditions in which materials will fall under the jurisdiction of tribal groups, based on a principle of cultural affiliation. That isn’t always clear or possible, and activists for tribal sovereignty in this and other cases have made broad claims for The skeleton was ultimately studied briefly by a group of anthropologists, the results published only last year. And just this month the Seattle Times used Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain some of the findings of DNA tests on the skeleton: “First DNA tests say Kennewick Man was Native American”. We will have to wait for the publication of the results by Eske Willerslev’s group to see how they compare to the results from other early specimens.
One think missing from Eveleth’s account is how much we have learned in the last few years from this kind of research. The DNA results from the Clovis-era Anzick skeleton last year really helped to establish the basic parameters of the early migration of people into the Americas. It is a fascinating field of study that adds perspective to the ability of humans to colonize and adapt to new environments. Studies of DNA and ancient skeletons tie the story of Paleoindians into the shared ancestry of peoples of the Old World. They have uncovered unexpected connections between Europe, Siberia and the first inhabitants of the Americas and are helping to rebuild the history of lost populations.
What has made such research possible is the willingness of tribes and geneticists to work together. Those relationships have existed for many years, but they have not grabbed the headlines like Kennewick and other instances of antagonism. Now that ancient DNA techniques are advancing, the results speak for themselves.
From Dave Winer: “A note about blogging”.
Some people seem to feel the need to justify blogging, blogging is still alive they say, but it's actually more than alive blogging is a cultural fixture. Thriving.
This interview came out in October of last year, but a reader only recently brought it to my attention: “A Pay-it-Forward Approach to Open Access Publishing: Interview with Neil Christensen of UC Press”. The conversation helps to introduce how the University of California Press is establishing a new open access journal, with a unique funding model:
Neil Christensen is helping pioneer a new model for open access (OA) publishing, by giving value back to the academic community in dollars. In his role as director of digital development at the University of California Press (UCP), Christensen, together with digital science publisher Dan Morgan and a team of colleagues at the press and University of California, are launching a new kind of OA journal. Like other OA journals, UCP’s will generate publication funding from article processing charges (APCs). Only instead of keeping profit earned from those APCs, UCP’s journal will “pay it forward” by giving editors and reviewers the opportunity to put their earnings towards their supporting institution’s OA initiatives or the article processing charges of future authors’ submissions to the journal.
Many other open access journals that levy publication fees routinely issue fee waivers for articles that are not funded by grants or institutional agreements, so the “pay it forward” model isn’t really novel in itself. Already the researchers with grants are paying to publish the works of people with no grants.
But empowering reviewers by giving them a voice in how funds will be allocated by the journal is a big step toward a more positive experience. As it is, reviewers for most journals receive no recognition for the work they’ve provided. Giving them a more formal role may help to build a community around this journal, improving the quality of review and encouraging a real interchange of ideas to develop. Recognizing the work that reviewers have done by making review open instead of anonymous would be an even more positive step.
One might object that UC Press could make the journal even less costly for authors by cutting out the allocation of funds for review and editing. But even including these allocations, the publication charge is very reasonable compared to competitors:
Take that three or four thousand dollar APC and then compare it to what we’re trying to roll out: an APC of $875, and out of that $875 we are going to pay $250 to the reviewers and editors, that leaves us with $625 of revenue we need on the publication side to pay the platform partners and transaction partners. If we can do all of that with $625 and we’re a small publisher, then you’ve got to wonder what the cost is for those publishers charging three and four thousand dollars who have greater scale than us and can do it for less money. There’s definitely a huge gap there.
It would be really great to see more university presses get into this game. That might provide a route for universities to divert money away from subscription journals directly into publishing the work of their own academics.
For that matter, why don’t universities simply pay for peer review?
You could say that a university has a conflict of interest if it effectively is reviewing the work of its own researchers. But that criticism can be addressed easily when the process of review is open. And if a researcher’s work has already been reviewed, there’s no reason why the work should not be cited in an institutional repository. In that system, the “journals” of the future can be collaborations of universities instead of publishers, and the work of a journal editor can be subsidized by the same funds that are currently paying for subscriptions.
The New York Times reports on the new initiative to fund massive research on personalized medicine: “Obama to Request Research Funding for Treatments Tailored to Patients’ DNA”
The proposal, mentioned briefly in his State of the Union address, will be described in greater detail in his budget in the coming weeks. The effort is likely to receive support from members of both parties, lawmakers said.
“This is an incredible area of promise,” said Senator Bill Cassidy, Republican of Louisiana and a gastroenterologist. “There will be bipartisan support.”
The article briefly mentions the prospect of Medicare paying for treatments based on patient genotypes.
It’s interesting to see something grow over 10-15 years from the idea of a small group of researchers and venture funders up to a major government initiative. It is a true triumph of marketing in science.
Notable paper: Raichlen, D. A., Wood, B. M., Gordon, A. D., Mabulla, A. Z., Marlowe, F. W., & Pontzer, H. (2014). Evidence of Lévy walk foraging patterns in human hunter–gatherers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(2), 728-733.
Synopsis: A Lévy walk is a kind of power distribution in which a single meandering path can be broken down into multiple short steps interspersed with few long steps, separated by changes in direction or pauses. This kind of pattern is called “scale-invariant”, because the interspersal of long and short occurs at every scale. Raichlen and colleagues asked Hadza people to wear GPS devices while foraging for food, finding that 40% of their foraging bouts involved the short-long interspersed pattern of the Lévy distribution, truncated because of the lack of very long segments. A further 40% or more could be accommodated by other mathematical models with long and short steps alternated.
Important because: Some other animals who forage across long distances also use this kind of pattern. So do humans who live in cities. From very simple to complex, the scale-invariant search strategies seem to be the most common.
Interesting aside: Hadza women used the scale-invariant foraging pattern more than men, in large part because men stopped the search pattern when they found meat or honey and traveled more or less straight back to camp.
You can understand a lot about academic research by watching Mad Men. The series is about advertising executives in the 1960s, including “creatives” who work to develop advertising campaigns, and “accounts men” who wine and dine executives from big companies to land accounts. They share a penchant for womanizing and alcohol, but otherwise the two are very different types of people with different skillsets. Accounts men work to get company reps into the conference room, where creatives do their magic to close the deal by showing how they would take the company to marketing nirvana.
Despite their differences they do have similarities. Both jobs depend on an intricate dance of style and perception of the clients’ desires—neither of which can be easily predicted. Don Draper may have the most beautiful idea ever, but the client may never be happy unless her dog is in the ad. The only objective way to tell if the agency is doing a good job is by adding up the billings. Each needs the skills of the other to make money and everyone celebrates together when they sign a big account.
What does this have to do with academics?
From Dorothy Bishop: “The big grants, the big papers: are we missing something?”
For many universities, a high proportion of their core funding is linked to research grants. Consequently, we now have the weird situation whereby a researcher who achieves important results with little or no funding is valued less than someone who receives a huge grant but fails to do anything sensible with it. It should be a matter of concern to funders that in contemporary academic life, people are encouraged to write expensive grant proposals rather than thrifty ones.
Faced with the difficulty of judging scientists on their creativity of their ideas, universities and institutions fall back on what can be most easily quantified: money.
If you’re a beancounter, there appears to be some sense to an objective scale based on money. Sure, universities want to advance science. But science today is highly distributed and collaborative, with most scientists working on small parts of big problems. Major breakthroughs that fundamentally change our way of doing science are rare and usually involve a community of people who challenge each other to work in a new way, not a single maverick lab. The major breakthroughs are not generally obvious at the time they happen, which means that university hiring ends up chasing fads that derive from advances that came years before.
By contrast, it takes minutes to determine if money has actually been transferred to the university’s accounts. When it comes to quantifying results, money speaks for itself.
Grantwriting is necessary to today’s scientific process. A strong grant application shows clearly how scientific results can be obtained, matching the likely outcomes to budget requirements and personnel. This skill can make an institution run better by fostering collaboration and collective problem-solving, while establishing connections to funders and the public. These are tremendously important for science.
But grantwriting and creative work in science are two very different skillsets. And in these days when only 5% of grant applications may be funded, even the good grantwriters will strike out at most of their times at the plate. A university may as well try to run Sterling Cooper without Don Draper and Peggy Olson. They may keep the clients happy for a while, but before long the lack of inspiration will grind the place to a halt.
Probably the most frustrating thing about grant-obsessed administrators is that grantwriting is most effective when the creative work has already been done. Nothing convinces like good pilot data, results already in hand. Many experienced grantees will describe how they use work already done to apply for a grant, which will fund the work needed to get their next grant, and so on. Completely lost is the idea of creativity, except the creativity needed to write the next grant application. In science, that’s the opposite of what we want.
How can we ensure that more creativity gets funded?
Simply, we have to begin to expect failure. Ideas are like mutations: Most of them will be bad or neutral, and only a few good. A grant panel of experts may be able to eliminate many of the bad ideas. But we know from the history of science that most good ideas are not obvious at the time, and that it’s hard to distinguish the neutral ones from the good ones. We should be funding science where the outcomes cannot be easily predicted, putting ideas to the test. To do that we need to accept that a high proportion of these ideas will be dead ends. But we need to fund a broader range of creative people to increase the chance of finding a really good idea, the kind that can give rise to new fields of inquiry.
That’s what advertisers ultimately do as well: Cast the net wide, knowing that most people who see an ad will not immediately become customers. Creativity can shave a few percent off the odds of failure, and that’s worth rewarding.
Interesting outcome of a study of GitHub open source projects: Teams are more productive when they have greater diversity in the length of time on project (tenure) and gender (“Gender and tenure diversity in GitHub teams”).
Diversity in teams has been studied for a long time in offline groups, but different studies still disagree on the effects. Instead, we focused on distributed (online) software teams, such as those in Open Source Software (OSS). OSS teams are much more fluid, therefore much less tangible, than their offline counterparts. In OSS teams are naturally very diverse, consisting of contributors from all over the world, typically a mixture of volunteers and professionals, coming from varied cultural and educational backgrounds, with different interests and skills.
It’s an interesting sample compared to many workplace studies, because contributors to open source projects can walk away much more easily. That makes the outcome more comparable to voluntary associations, possibly including those in small-scale societies. The authors indicate that their diversity measures explain a small proportion of the variance in productivity, and the measurements may not get at the important aspects of creative work, especially with the number of other factors that must be controlled.
An interesting short article in ScienceNordic reports on ancient items melting out of Scandinavian glaciers: “Items lost in the Stone Age are found in melting glaciers”.
An ancient route over the mountains once passed by the glacier where Lars Pilø and his colleagues conducted field work. People crossed the mountains with livestock, and went back and forth to their high summer farms – or simply travelled from one place to another. They have left a wide array of artefacts in their wake over the centuries, to the delight of 21st century archaeologists.
The problem of course is context. Ice can uniquely preserve some artifacts but the context of those artifacts with ancient activities is going to be very limited. Examining a former summer travel route is one way of adding context to the resulting artifacts. Another way is to find artifacts contextualized together. For example, Otzi carried an entire kit of clothing, tools and weapons, all found together and therefore telling us about the lifestyle of one individual.
Still, even without context from other artifacts or spatial placement, uniquely well-preserved artifacts can tell us something. A single knife blade hafted onto a well-preserved wooden handle tells us how all those other blades may have been hafted, even though their handles are never preserved at more conventional sites.
National Geographic dedicated part of its January 2015 issue to the origin of art. The longread article by Chip Walter is now available online: “First Artists”. The narrative winds through Chauvet Cave in France, to Klipdrift Shelter in South Africa and Hohle Fels in Germany, talking with Francesco d’Errico, Nicholas Conard, Chris Henshilwood, and Jean Clottes.
It’s unfortunate that this article was written before the recent discovery of much earlier geometric marks from Trinil, Indonesia. Indeed, the evidence that Leang Barugayya 2, Sulawesi, exceeds the European cave art in age tends to show how Eurocentric the investigation of ancient art has been.
Last year I published an essay in Nautilus, titled “Are humans the greatest things created by the human hand?”. The article has been making the rounds on social media this week, so I thought others might be interested in seeing the link again:
Psychologists studying learning in human children and chimpanzee juveniles have found that a key difference between our two species is the ability to share attention jointly with another, more experienced individual. When a mother holds a toy in her hands and names it, the child can learn that word. When a mother points at the toy later on, the child will understand. By directing attention with our hands, early humans may have laid the groundwork for spoken language.
And now, we type and text.
The first part of the essay considers the way that Homo habilis was interpreted as the first hominin with humanlike hands, and the shift brought by the humanlike hand of Australopithecus sediba.
Global Palaeo News has an interesting table of acceptance rates and publication times for journals in Paleolithic archaeology published by Elsevier: “Publishing the Palaeolithic: acceptance rates, impact factors and publication times”.
Of course, limited to one publisher the list is hardly comprehensive, but it is interesting to see publication time and acceptance rate both quantified in this way.
“Impact factor” is completely senseless for archaeology papers. The impact factor of a journal relates to the average number of citations papers received during their first two years after publication. The timeline of developing research in archaeology is typically much longer than two years. Indeed, when we look at the publication times of these journals, it’s easy to see that nearly all the journals exceed 6 months from submission to publication, so a fourth of the “2 year” impact factor time in archaeology papers is bled off by the review process. The time across which publications in archaeology are important is much longer than two years, and the most important papers will provide primary documentation of new observations for decades to come.
Notable paper: Sala, Nohemi, Juan-Luis Arsuaga, Ignacio Martínez and Ana Gracia-Téllez (2015) Breakage patterns in Sima de los Huesos (Atapuerca, Spain) hominin sample. Journal of Archaeological Science (early online) doi:10.1016/j.jas.2015.01.002
Synopsis: The Sima de los Huesos contains the largest sample of Pleistocene hominin fossils anywhere in the world, with more than 6000 specimens, which are broken parts of the bones of more than 30 individuals. Sala and colleagues examined the breakage patterns in these bone fragments to understand how they were altered at or after the hominins’ deaths. They found that the overall pattern matches
Interesting because: An earlier study (Andrews and Fernández-Jalvo 1997) had shown that “green” fractures were equally common as dry bone fractures in the sample, making it look like most of the bones had been broken before or shortly after death. That led to dramatic reconstructions of the events accompanying the deposition of the skeletal remains. Sala and colleagues were able to look at the vastly larger sample of bones that have been uncovered during the last 20 years, finding that the apparent green fractures are mostly found within superficial layers of the deposit. Those might have been caused by carnivore trampling or chewing on the bones, with some evidence of tooth marks on the hominin bone. But the majority of the deposit has fracture patterns consistent with sediment compression and shifting.
Andrews P, Fernández-Jalvo Y. (1997) Surface modifications of the Sima de los Huesos fossil humans Journal of Human Evolution, 33:191–217. doi:10.1006/jhev.1997.0137
Notable paper: Madella M, García-Granero JJ, Out WA, Ryan P, Usai D (2014) Microbotanical Evidence of Domestic Cereals in Africa 7000 Years Ago. PLoS ONE 9(10): e110177. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0110177
Synopsis: Marco Madella and colleagues examined ancient plant evidence from two Nubian Neolithic cemeteries, both between 7000 and 6000 years old. Some of the graves included “pillows” of plant material behind the skulls of the human skeletons; in other cases Madella and coworkers examined dental calculus. Samples from Ghaba cemetery included starch grains and phytoliths from a number of local wild grasses, including a sorghum species, while samples from R12 cemetery—especially the pillows—had remains of wheat and barley relatives, showing that the spread of these Near Eastern crops south into Africa had begun.
Interesting because: The paleobotanical evidence shows that Near Eastern domesticates were brought south along the Nile half a millennium earlier than previously thought. The Neolithic population of Nubia was successfully adapting to a broad-based reliance upon local grasses, which may have preadapted them to adopt the exotic domesticated grasses.