4408 entries. 93 themes. Last updated July 30, 2014.

2,500,000 BCE to 8,000 BCE Timeline

Theme

The First Industrial Complex Circa 2,500,000 BCE – 500,000 BCE

Olduvai Gorge

Louis Leakey poses with hominid skulls.

At Olduvai Gorge, a steep-sided ravine in the Great Rift Valley, Tanzania, prehistoric hominins of the Lower Paleolithic manufactured stone tools.

These rough flake tools, discovered in the twentieth century CE, are characterized as Oldowan. They are also characterized as Mode 1 industries.

"The earliest archaeological deposit, known as Bed I, has produced evidence of campsites and living floors along with stone tools made of flakes from local basalt and quartz. Since this is the site where these kinds of tools were first discovered, these tools are called Oldowan. It is now thought that the Oldowan toolmaking tradition started about 2.6 million years ago. Bones from this layer are not of modern humans but primitive hominid forms of Paranthropus boisei and the first discovered specimens of Homo habilis" (Wikipedia article on Olduvai Gorge, accessed 04-04-2009).

"Oldowan tool use is estimated to have begun about 2.5 million years ago (mya), lasting to as late as 0.5 mya. For about 1 million years exclusively Oldowan sites are found. After 1.5 mya Acheulean sites make their appearance in the archaeological record, but this does not mean Oldowan sites are no longer found. It is thought that Oldowan tools were produced by several species of hominins ranging from Australopithecus to early Homo. 'Oldowan' therefore does not properly refer to a culture, but to a very simple tradition of tool manufacture that was in use for a long time" (Wikipedia article on Oldowan, accessed 04-04-2009).

Primitive shaped stone tool artifacts closely resembling Olduwan technology were found with Australopithecus garhi remains dating back roughly 2.5 and 2.6 million years, discovered in the Bouri Formation, an area in the Middle Awash Valley, Ethiopia in 1996 by a research team led by Ethiopian paleontologist Berhane Asfaw and American paleontologist Tim White. Those hominin remains are believed to be a human ancestor species, and the final missing link between the Australopithecus genus and the human genus, Homo. The tools associated with A. garhi may be older than those made by Homo habilis, which is thought to be a possible direct ancestor of more modern hominins.

For a long time anthropologists assumed that only members of early genus Homo had the ability to produce sophisticated tools, and the crude ancient tools associated with Austropithecus garhi apparently lack several techniques that are generally seen in later forms, Olduwan and Acheulean. About 3,000 stone artifacts found in another site in Bouri, Ethiopia, were estimated to be 2.5 million years old.

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Homo habilis Circa 2,400,000 BCE – 1,400,000 BCE

Fragmented part of a lower mandible (which still holds thirteen teeth, as well as unerupted wisdom teeth). (Click on image to view larger.)

Olduvai Gorge.

Artist rendition of Homo Habilis. (Click on image to view larger.)

Louis Leakey.

Mary Leakey.

Between 1960 and 1963 a team led by scientists Louis and Mary Leakey uncovered the fossilized remains of a unique early human at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. The type specimen, OH 7, found by Jonathan Leakey, was nicknamed "Jonny's child". Because this early human had a combination of features different from those seen in Australopithecus, Louis Leakey, South African scientist Philip Tobias, and British scientist John Napier called these remains a new species— Homo habilis, meaning ‘handy man', as they suspected that this slightly larger-brained early human made the thousands of stone tools found at Olduvai Gorge.

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A New Hominid Species is Discovered with the Help of Satellite Imagery Circa 1,950,000 BCE – 1,780,000 BCE

Skull of Malapa Hominin 1. MH1 also known as australopethicus sediba. (Click on image to view larger.)

(Source: Photo courtesy of Lee R. Berger. February 2010.)

The clavicle discovered by Matthew Berger on August 15, 2008.

(Source: Photo courtesy of Lee R. Berger and the University of Witwatersrand 2010.)

On April 7, 2010 American paleoanthropologist, physical anthropologist and archaeologist Lee R. Berger of the Institute for Human Evolution, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, and the University of Arkansas, announced the discovery in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site in South Africa of a new species of hominid named Australopithecus sediba, which lived 1.95 million to 1.78 million years ago. The first portion of the fossil remains were discovered by Berger's nine year old son Matthew.

"In a report being published Friday in the journal Science, Dr. Berger, 44, and a team of scientists said the fossils from the boy and a woman were a surprising and distinctive mixture of primitive and advanced anatomy and thus qualified as a new species of hominid, the ancestors and other close relatives of humans. It has been named Australopithecus sediba.  

"The species sediba, which means fountain or wellspring in the seSotho language, strode upright on long legs, with human-shaped hips and pelvis, but still climbed through trees on apelike arms. It had the small teeth and more modern face of Homo, the genus that includes modern humans, but the relatively primitive feet and “tiny brain” of Australopithecus, Dr. Berger said.  

"Geologists estimated that the individuals lived 1.78 to 1.95 million years ago, probably closer to the older date, a period when australopithecines and early species of Homo were contemporaries.  

"Dr. Berger’s team said that the new species probably descended from Australopithecus africanus. At a teleconference on Wednesday, he described the species as a possible ancestor of Homo erectus, an immediate predecessor to Homo sapiens, or a close “side branch” that did not lead to modern humans" (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/09/science/09fossil.html?hp, accessed 04-08-2010).

The formal scientific paper describing the discovery was published in Science 9 April 2010: Vol. 328. no. 5975, pp. 195 - 204 DOI: 10.1126/science.1184944: Berger et al, "Australopithecus sediba: A New Species of Homo-Like Australopith from South Africa."

♦ An unusual feature of the discovery was that it was assisted by satellite imagery.

"At the beginning of this project, there were approximately 130 known cave sites in the region and around 20 fossil deposits. With the help of the navigation facility and high-resolution satellite imagery in Google Earth, Professor Berger went on to find almost 500 previously unidentified caves and fossil sites, even though the area is one of the most explored in Africa. One of these fossil sites yielded the remarkable discovery of a new species, Australopithecus sediba. This species was an upright walker that shared many physical traits with the earliest known species of the genus homo — and its introduction into the fossil record might answer some key questions about our earliest ancestry in Africa" (http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2010/04/google-earth-helps-discover-rare.html, accessed 04-08-2010).
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The Oldest Hominin Fossils Found Outside of Africa Circa 1,800,000 BCE

Fossil skull of D2700. (Click on image to view larger.)

Fossil skull of D2700. (Click on image to view larger.)

In 1991 Georgian anthropologist and paleontologist David O. Lordkipanidze discovered at Dmanisi, in the Kvemo kartli region of Georgia, hominin remains first classified as a new species, Homo georgicus, but later classified within H. erectus, sometimes called Homo erectus georgicus. Since then additional fossil remains dating roughly from this period were excavated from the site.

"The conventional view of human evolution and how early man colonised the world has been thrown into doubt by a series of stunning palaeontological discoveries suggesting that Africa was not the sole cradle of humankind. Scientists have found a handful of ancient human skulls at an archaeological site two hours from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, that suggest a Eurasian chapter in the long evolutionary story of man. The skulls, jawbones and fragments of limb bones suggest that our ancient human ancestors migrated out of Africa far earlier than previously thought and spent a long evolutionary interlude in Eurasia – before moving back into Africa to complete the story of man.  

"Experts believe fossilised bones unearthed at the medieval village of Dmanisi in the foothills of the Caucuses, and dated to about 1.8 million years ago, are the oldest indisputable remains of humans discovered outside of Africa. But what has really excited the researchers is the discovery that these early humans (or "hominins") are far more primitive-looking than the Homo erectus humans that were, until now, believed to be the first people to migrate out of Africa about 1 million years ago.  

"The Dmanisi people had brains that were about 40 per cent smaller than those of Homo erectus and they were much shorter in stature than classical H. erectus skeletons, according to Professor David Lordkipanidze, general director of the Georgia National Museum. 'Before our findings, the prevailing view was that humans came out of Africa almost 1 million years ago, that they already had sophisticated stone tools, and that their body anatomy was quite advanced in terms of brain capacity and limb proportions. But what we are finding is quite different," Professor Lordkipanidze said.  

" 'The Dmanisi hominins are the earliest representatives of our own genus – Homo – outside Africa, and they represent the most primitive population of the species Homo erectus to date. They might be ancestral to all later Homo erectus populations, which would suggest a Eurasian origin of Homo erectus.'

"Speaking at the British Science Festival in Guildford, where he gave the British Council lecture, Professor Lordkipanidze raised the prospect that Homo erectus may have evolved in Eurasia from the more primitive-looking Dmanisi population and then migrated back to Africa to eventually give rise to our own species, Homo sapiens – modern man.  

" 'The question is whether Homo erectus originated in Africa or Eurasia, and if in Eurasia, did we have vice-versa migration? This idea looked very stupid a few years ago, but today it seems not so stupid,' he told the festival.  

The scientists have discovered a total of five skulls and a solitary jawbone. It is clear that they had relatively small brains, almost a third of the size of modern humans. 'They are quite small. Their lower limbs are very human and their upper limbs are still quite archaic and they had very primitive stone tools,' Professor Lordkipanidze said. 'Their brain capacity is about 600 cubic centimetres. The prevailing view before this discovery was that the humans who first left Africa had a brain size of about 1,000 cubic centimetres.'

"The only human fossil to predate the Dmanisi specimens are of an archaic species Homo habilis, or 'handy man', found only in Africa, which used simple stone tools and lived between about 2.5 million and 1.6 million years ago.  

" 'I'd have to say, if we'd found the Dmanisi fossils 40 years ago, they would have been classified as Homo habilis because of the small brain size. Their brow ridges are not as thick as classical Homo erectus, but their teeth are more H. erectus like,' Professor Lordkipanidze said. 'All these finds show that the ancestors of these people were much more primitive than we thought. I don't think that we were so lucky as to have found the first travellers out of Africa. Georgia is the cradle of the first Europeans, I would say,' he told the meeting.  

" 'What we learnt from the Dmanisi fossils is that they are quite small – between 1.44 metres to 1.5 metres tall. What is interesting is that their lower limbs, their tibia bones, are very human-like so it seems they were very good runners,' he said.  

"He added: 'In regards to the question of which came first, enlarged brain size or bipedalism, maybe indirectly this information calls us to think that body anatomy was more important than brain size. While the Dmanisi people were almost modern in their body proportions, and were highly efficient walkers and runners, their arms moved in a different way, and their brains were tiny compared to ours.

'Nevertheless, they were sophisticated tool makers with high social and cognitive skills,' he told the science festival, which is run by the British Science Association.  

"One of the five skulls is of a person who lost all his or her teeth during their lifetime but had still survived for many years despite being completely toothless. This suggests some kind of social organisation based on mutual care, Professor Lordkipanidze said" (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/a-skull-that-rewrites-the-history-of-man-1783861.html [09 September 2009], accessed 08-08-2013).

 

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Pithecanthropus erectus, the First Known Specimen of Homo erectus Circa 1,800,000 BCE – 141,000 BCE

Original fossil bones of Pithecanthropus erectus (now Homo erectus) found in Java in 1891. (Click on image to view larger.)

Illustration of Java Man scull. (Click on image to view larger.)

In 1891 Dutch physician, paleoanthropologist and geologist Eugène Dubois discovered a fossil skullcap, femur and a few teeth at Trinil - Ngawi Regency on the banks of the Solo River in East Java, Indonesia. Dubois characterized this specimen as a species "between humans and apes," naming it Pithecanthropus erectus (ape-human that stands upright). Prior to Dubois human fossils such as Neanderthal 1 and Cro-Magnon had been discovered by accident; Dubois was the first scientist to set out to discover prehistoric human fossils, and for his controversial discovery of Pithecanthropus erectus he received great fame and notoriety. 

In 1936 a more complete specimen of Pithecanthropus erectus was discovered by German-born paleontologist and geologist G. H. R. von Koenigswald in the village of Sangiran, Central Java, 18 km to the north of Solo. 

"Until older human remains were discovered in the Great Rift Valley in Kenya, Dubois' and Koenigswald's discoveries were the oldest hominid remains ever found. Some scientists of the day suggested Dubois' Java Man as a potential intermediate form between modern humans and the common ancestor we share with the other great apes. The current consensus of anthropologists is that the direct ancestors of modern humans were African populations of Homo erectus (possibly Homo ergaster), rather than the Asian populations exemplified by Java Man and Peking Man. Dubois' specimen was later classified as Homo erectus, a species that lived throught most of the Pleistocene epoch, originating in Africa and spreading as far as England, Georgia, India, Sri Lanka, China and Java" (Wikipedia article on Java Man, accessed 08-21-2013).

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The Earliest Completely Preserved Adult Hominid Skull Circa 1,800,000 BCE

On October 17, 2013 David Lordkipanidze, paleontologist and director of the Georgian National Museum in Tiblisi reported the results of eight years study of a 1.8 million-year-old skull, known as Skull 5, discovered at Dmanisi, a site in the republic of Georgia. At the time of discovery, this skull of an adult man was the earliest completely preserved adult hominid skull. It has a surprisingly primitive, protruding upper jaw, and a tiny braincase. Combined with four other skulls found earlier at Dmanisi, it suggests that ancient people from the same time and place could look quite different from each other. For this reason, and because the Dmanisi hominids are so similar to the African hominids of the period, Lordkipanidze and his co-authors theorized that fossils from both continents represent a single species.

"The site of Dmanisi, Georgia, has yielded an impressive sample of hominid cranial and postcranial remains, documenting the presence of Homo outside Africa around 1.8 million years ago. Here we report on a new cranium from Dmanisi (D4500) that, together with its mandible (D2600), represents the world's first completely preserved adult hominid skull from the early Pleistocene. D4500/D2600 combines a small braincase (546 cubic centimeters) with a large prognathic face and exhibits close morphological affinities with the earliest known Homo fossils from Africa. The Dmanisi sample, which now comprises five crania, provides direct evidence for wide morphological variation within and among early Homo paleodemes. This implies the existence of a single evolving lineage of early Homo, with phylogeographic continuity across continents" (Abstract in Science.)  

Lordkipanidze et al, "A Complete Skull from Dmanisi, Georgia, and the Evolutionary Biology of Early Homo," Science 18 October 2013: 
Vol. 342 no. 6156 pp. 326-331, DOI: 10.1126/science.1238484 

(This entry was last revised on April 12, 2014.)

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Acheulean or Mode 2 Industries Circa 1,650,000 BCE – 100,000 BCE

A flint biface, discovered in Saint-Acheul, France. (View Larger)

During the Lower Paleolithic era prehistoric hominins manufactured stone tools, characterized scientifically as Acheulean (Acheulian), across Africa and much of West Asia and Europe. Acheulean tools are typically found with Homo erectus remains.

"The Mode 2 (eg Acheulean or Biface) toolmakers also used the Mode 1 flake tool method but supplemented it by also using wood or bone implements to pressure flake fragments away from stone cores to create the first true hand-axes. The use of a soft hammer made from wood or bone also resulted in more control over the shape of the finished tool. Unlike the earlier Mode 1 industries, the core was prized over the flakes that came from it. Another advance was that the Mode 2 tools were worked symmetrically and on both sides (hence the name Biface) indicating greater care in the production of the final tool" (Wikipedia article on Stone tool, accessed 04-04-2009).

"Providing calendrical dates and ordered chronological sequences in the study of early stone tool manufacture is difficult and contentious. Radiometric dating, often potassium-argon dating, of deposits containing Acheulean material is able to broadly place the use of Acheulean techniques within the time from around 1.65 million years ago to about 100,000 years ago. The earliest accepted examples of the type, at 1.65 m years old, come from the West Turkana region of Kenya although some have argued for its emergence from as early as 1.8 million years ago.

"In individual regions, this dating can be considerably refined; in Europe for example, Acheulean methods did not reach the continent until around one million years ago and in smaller study areas, the date ranges can be much shorter. Numerical dates can be misleading however, and it is common to associate examples of this early human tool industry with one or more glacial or interglacial periods or with a particular early species of human. The earliest user of Acheulean tools was Homo ergaster who first appeared almost 2 million years ago. Not all researchers use this formal name however and instead prefer to call these users early Homo erectus. Later forms of early humans also used Acheulean techniques . . . .

"It was the dominant technology for the vast majority of human history and more than one million years ago it was Acheulean tool users who left Africa to first successfully colonize Eurasia. Their distinctive oval and pear-shaped handaxes have been found over a wide area and some examples attained a very high level of sophistication suggesting that the roots of human art, economy and social organisation arose as a result of their development. Although it developed in Africa, the industry is named after the type site of Saint Acheul, now a suburb of Amiens in northern France, where some of the first examples were identified in the 19th century" (Wikipedia article on Achulean, accessed 04-04-2009).

♦ "These kinds of Acheulean artifacts, as they are known, have been found in Africa dating back about 1.5 million years. But in Europe, the oldest hand axes that had been found dated to only half a million years ago. Scientists have wondered why it took so long for early humans with such refined toolmaking to show up in Europe.

"Now research from two sites in southeastern Spain provides an answer: it didn’t take that long, after all.

"Using paleomagnetic dating, Gary R. Scott and Luis Gibert of the Berkeley Geochronology Center in California have determined that rather than being about 200,000 years old, the two sites, Solano del Zamborino and Estrecho del Quípar, are about 760,000 and 900,000 years old, respectively."

"Dr. Gibert said the finding, which was published in Nature, adds to mounting evidence that humans migrated to Europe from Africa earlier than previously thought.

" 'The question is, which route did they follow?' he said. Rather than coming through the Middle East and then westward, Dr. Gibert said he is convinced they came across at Gibraltar. 'We think the Gibraltar straits were a permeable barrier,' he said. 'It’s a provocative interpretation, but I think there is enough information to support it' " (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/08/science/08obaxe.html?scp=1&sq=stone%20tools&st=cse, accessed 09-12-2009).

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The Earliest Preserved Footprints of Our Ancestors Circa 1,530,000 BCE – 1,510,000 BCE

Ancient footprints at Koobi Fora. Photograph by Brian Richmond. (View Larger)

Footprints discovered by Jack Harris, Brian Richmond, and David Braun in 2007 at the Homo erectus site of Ileret  are "the oldest undisputed evidence of hominins (probably Homo erectus) walking in an efficient style like we do."  

The footprints were found in Koobi Fora, located on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana, in the territory of the nomadic Gabbra people in Kenya.

"A key question about human origins concerns when our style of upright walking became fully modern. Today, we walk with a long stride and a spring-like mechanism in the arch of our foot that makes our walking very energetically efficient. In 2007, Drs. Harris, Richmond, Braun, and colleagues discovered the first of many footprints made by our early hominin relatives 1.51-1.53 million years ago at the site of FwJj14E at Ileret, Kenya. The prints show evidence of a well-developed arch in the foot, that contributes to efficient walking, and evidence of a long stride ending in a propulsive 'toe-off' like the characteristic toe-off of modern people. More footprints were found in 2008-2009, so Smithsonian researchers Drs. Richmond and Behrensmeyer, and their colleagues, are optimistic that this site will yield more footprints and shed more light on the origin of human walking and running" (http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/behavior/footprints-koobi-fora-kenya, accessed 05-10-2010).

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Early Humans Make Bone Tools Circa 1,500,000 BCE

Five bone tools excavated in Swartkrans, South Africa, once used by Parantrhopus robustus for foraging purposes. Photography by Jim Di Loreto and Don Hurlbert, Smithsonian Institution. (View Larger)

Experiments and microscopic studies show that the ends of bone tools found in Swartkrans, Republic of South Africa, were used by early humans to dig in termite mounds about 1.5 million years ago.

"Through repeated use, the ends became rounded and polished. Termites are rich in protein and would have been a nutritious source of food for Paranthropus robustus" (http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/behavior/bone-tools, accessed 05-10-2010).

(This entry was last revised on 04-16-2014.)

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The Earliest Hearths Circa 1,500,000 BCE – 790,000 BCE

Scorched stone tools excavated in 2004 at Gesher Benot-Ya-aqov, in Israel, provide evidence for the existence of early hearths. Photograph by Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution. (View Larger)

"The earliest hearths are at least 790,000 years old, and some researchers think cooking may reach back more than 1.5 million years. Control of fire provided a new tool with several uses—including cooking, which led to a fundamental change in the early human diet. Cooking released nutrients in foods and made them easier to digest. It also rid some plants of poisons.

"Over time, early humans began to gather at hearths and shelters to eat and socialize. As brains became larger and more complex, growing up took longer—requiring more parental care and the protective environment of a home. Expanding social networks led, eventually, to the complex social lives of modern humans" (http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/behavior/hearths-shelters, accessed 05-10-2010).

Fire-altered stone tools found in 2004 at Gesher Benot-Ya’aqov, Israel by a team led by Naama Goren-Inbar include stone tools scorched by fire close to concentrations of burnt seeds and wood, indicative of early hearths

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The Most Complete Early Human Skeleton Circa 1,500,000 BCE

Fossil skull and jawbone of Turkana Boy. (Click on image to view larger.)

In 1984 Kamoya Kimeu, a member of a team led by Richard Leakey, discovered the Turkana Boy (Nariokotome Boy) at Nariokotome near Lake Turkana in Kenya.  Scientifically identified as fossil KNM-WT 15000 (Kenya National Museum, West Turkana, item 15000), this nearly complete skeleton of a hominid who died in the early Pleistocene, 1.5 million years ago, is the most complete early human skeleton ever found. It was once thought to be a member of the species Homo erectus, but after much debate, was classified as Homo ergaster.  

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The Earliest Flint Tool Found in Europe Circa 1,400,000 BCE

Carved flint.

On August 7, 2013 Eudald Carbonell, one of the directors of excavation at the caves of Atapuerca, Spain, announced the discovery of a flint blade dating back 1.4 million years. The three centimeter (1.2 inch) blade—a portion of a carving knife— was found in the Elephant Chasm cave at Atapuerca near the northern city of Burgos. 

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The Earliest Human Remains from Western Europe Circa 1,200,000 BCE

The petite jaw suggests the oldest-found European was probably female.

In March 2008 a team led by Eudald Carbonell of the Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Tarragona announced the discovery at Sima del Elefante, Atapuerca, Spain stratographic Level TE9 of a human mandible associated with an assemblage of Mode 1 lithic tools (Oldowan industry) and faunal remains bearing traces of hominin processing. When I wrote this entry in 2013 these were the earliest human remains discovered in Western Europe.

"The earliest hominin occupation of Europe is one of the most debated topics in palaeoanthropology. However, the purportedly oldest of the Early Pleistocene sites in Eurasia lack precise age control and contain stone tools rather than human fossil remains. Here we report the discovery of a human mandible associated with an assemblage of Mode 1 lithic tools and faunal remains bearing traces of hominin processing, in stratigraphic level TE9 at the site of the Sima del Elefante, Atapuerca, Spain. Level TE9 has been dated to the Early Pleistocene (approximately 1.2–1.1 Myr), based on a combination of palaeomagnetism, cosmogenic nuclides and biostratigraphy. The Sima del Elefante site thus emerges as the oldest, most accurately dated record of human occupation in Europe, to our knowledge. The study of the human mandible suggests that the first settlement of Western Europe could be related to an early demographic expansion out of Africa. The new evidence, with previous findings in other Atapuerca sites (level TD6 from Gran Dolina), also suggests that a speciation event occurred in this extreme area of the Eurasian continent during the Early Pleistocene, initiating the hominin lineage represented by the TE9 and TD6 hominins" (Eudald Carbonell et al, "The first hominin of Europe," Nature 452, 465-469 (27 March 2008) | doi:10.1038/nature06815; Received 15 October 2007; Accepted 4 February 2008, accessed 08-08-2013).

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Humans May Have Lived in Britain as Early as 950,000 Years Ago Circa 950,000 BCE – 780,000 BCE

Ancient stone tools discovered at the Hapisburgh excavation site, East Anglia, England. Photocredit: Parfitt et al. Nature (View Larger)

Evidence from a former Thames river bed excavation site at Happisburgh in East Anglia, England, about 220 kilometers northeast of London, suggests that early humans were living in the cold climate of northern England between 780,000 and 950,000 years ago. These artefacts include 78 knapped flint specimens that the research team think were used by hunter-gatherers to pierce and cut meat or wood.

It is believed that the earliest humans moved to Europe from Africa around 1.8 million years ago, possibly crossing from Africa to Gibralter by a land bridge. It is also possible that early humans later crossed from Europe to Britain in a similar fashion. Recent evidence indicates that humans lived in Spain at Solano del Zamborino and Estrecho del Quípar, between roughly 780,000 and 950,000 years ago, but prior to the discovery of the Happisburgh site it was believed that early humans did not have the ability to adapt to the cold climates, similar to modern day Scandinavia, that would have existed in Britain at the time. Nor was it known that humans populated Britain so early. So far there is no evidence that these prehistoric inhabitants had mastered the use of fire for heating or cooking, although evidence from sites in the Middle East suggests that fire was used by other early humans at this date. 

"But because they were adapted to a warmer climate, archaeologists have so far believed that they didn't get as far north as Happisburgh — a comparatively cold, inhospitable place. Other studies at archaeological sites in Germany and France have shown signs of human activity in the north around the same time, but the dating of these sites is perhaps not as well established as that at Happisburgh.  

"The dating of the Happisburgh site is based on a combination of methods. The artefacts were entombed in sediment that records a reverse in the polarity of the Earth's magnetic field — the north and south poles switching places — at the time that they were laid down. The last polarity reversal is known to have been 780,000 years ago, making it probable that the Happisburgh artefacts are at least that old. . . ." (http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100707/full/news.2010.338.html, accessed 07-08-2010).

Human fossil remains have yet to be uncovered at the site, but the botanical and animal remains found there have proved very rich in detail.

Locating evidence of human habitation in a relatively cold and inhospital climate at this date is likely "to prompt a re-evaluation of the adaptations and capabilities of early humans" (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128361420, accessed 07-08-2010).

Simon A. Parfitt, Nick M. Ashton et al. "Early Pleistocene human occupation at the edge of the boreal zone in northwest Europe," Nature 466, 8 July 2010.

 

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The Oldest Human Footprints in Europe, Identified Using 3D Imaging Circa 900,000 BCE

On February 7, 2014 scientists in England announced the discovery of 49 footprints made by at least five different individuals preserved in soft sedimentary rock on a beach in Happisburgh, Norfolk. The preserved footprints, believed to be around 900,000 years old, were the earliest found in Europe to date. The prints were discovered in deposits that previously revealed stone tools and fossilized bones dating from between 800,000 and one million years before the present.

The footprints were uncovered at low tide in May 2013 after stormy seas pushed away large amounts of sand from the beach. Scientists removed remaining sand and sponged off the sea water before taking 3D scans and images of the surface. In some cases they identified heel marks, foot arches and even toes from the prints. They found footprints equivalent to up to a UK shoe size eight. The scientists estimated that the individuals who left the prints ranged from around two feet eleven inches tall to five feet eight inches tall. At least two or three of the group were thought to be children, and one was possibly an adult male.

"Anthropologists and evolutionary biologists from around the UK have been studying the tracks, and believe they may have been related to an extinct form of human ancestor known as Homo antecessor, or 'Pioneer Man.'

"The tracks include up to five different prints, indicating a group of both adults and children walked across the ancient wet estuary silt.

"They are the earliest direct evidence of human ancestors in the area and may belong to some of the first ever Britons.

"Until now the oldest human remains to be found in Europe all come from around the far south of the continent, including stone tools found in southern Italy and a tooth found in Spain.

"Skull fragments from that are around 780,000 years old hominid – the term used by scientists for early humans – were also found in southern Spain" (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/10623660/900000-year-old-footprints-of-earliest-northern-Europeans-discovered.html, accessed 02-08-2014). 

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Hunting Large Animals With Spears Circa 500,000 BCE

Photocredit: James Di Loreto, & Donald H. Hurlbert, Smithsonian Institution. (View Larger)

A fragment of a horse shoulder blade discovered by a team led by Mark Roberts at Boxgrove, England "contains a semicircular wound made by a weapon such as a spear, indicating it was killed by early humans. Other horse bones from the same site have butchery marks from stone tools" (http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/behavior/punctured-horse-shoulder-blade. accessed 05-10-2010).

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People Began Hunting with Stone-Tipped Spears 500,000 Years Ago Circa 500,000 BCE

Example of nearly 500,000 year-old hafted spear tips from Kathu Pan 1. Photo by Jayne Wilkins. (Click on image to view larger.)

According to 2012 research on spear points excavated by Peter Beaumont at Kathu Pan 1, South Africa in 1979-1982, which remain arguably the earliest stone-tipped spears yet found, people began hunting with stone-tipped spears about 500,000 years ago. Prior to 2012 it was thought that attaching a stone tip to a spear, known as "hafting," started about 300,000 years ago.

"Hafting stone points to spears was an important advance in weaponry for early humans. Multiple lines of evidence indicate that ~500,000-year-old stone points from the archaeological site of Kathu Pan 1 (KP1), South Africa, functioned as spear tips. KP1 points exhibit fracture types diagnostic of impact. Modification near the base of some points is consistent with hafting. Experimental and metric data indicate that the points could function well as spear tips. Shape analysis demonstrates that the smaller retouched points are as symmetrical as larger retouched points, which fits expectations for spear tips. The distribution of edge damage is similar to that in an experimental sample of spear tips and is inconsistent with expectations for cutting or scraping tools" (Jayne Wilkins, Benjamin J. Schoville, Kyle S. Brown, Michael Chazan, "Evidence for Early Hafted Hunting Technology," Science 16 November 2012: Vol. 338 no. 6109 pp. 942-946 DOI: 10.1126/science.1227608)

"However, by comparing the wear visible on 500,000-year-old stone points found in South Africa with modern experimental points fired by a specially calibrated crossbow at a springbok carcass, scientists proved they had been used as spear tips for hunting. Leader author Jayne Wilkins, a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto in Canada, said the research suggested stone-tipped spears could have been in use before the divergence of early humans and Neanderthals. She said: "This changes the way we think about early human adaptations and capacities before the origin of our own species.

"Although both Neanderthals and humans used stone-tipped spears, this is the first evidence that the technology originated prior to or near the divergence of these two species."

"Attaching stone points to spears was an important advance in hunting weaponry for early humans. Hafted tools require more effort and planning to manufacture, but a sharp stone point on the end of a spear can increase its killing power. Hafted spear tips are common in Stone Age archaeological sites after 300,000 years ago" (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/9682459/Man-hunted-with-spears-half-a-million-years-ago.html, accessed 11-16-2012).

 

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The Earliest Use of Pigments Circa 400,000 BCE – 350,000 BCE

A sample of geothite, or brown ochre. (View Larger)

Naturally occurring pigments such as ochres and iron oxides were used as colorants since prehistoric times. Archaeologists uncovered evidence that early humans used paint for aesthetic purposes such as body decoration. Pigments and paint grinding equipment believed to be between 350,000 and 400,000 years old were reported in a cave at Twin Rivers, near Lusaka, Zambia.

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The Oldest Wooden Spears Circa 400,000 BCE

One of three spears found at Schöningen, Germany in 1995. Photocredit: Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution. (View Larger)

Four wooden spears found at Schöningen, Germany, by Hartmut Thieme in 1995, along with stone tools and the butchered remains of about 20 horses, are thought to date from c. 400,000 BCE. They are the oldest human-made wooden artifacts, as well as the oldest weapons ever found. Three of them were probably manufactured as projectile weapons, because the weight and tapered point is at the front of the spear making it fly straight in flight, similar to the design of a modern javelin. The fourth spear is shorter with points at both ends and is thought to be a thrusting spear or a throwing stick. One of the horse remains found with the spears included a pelvis that still had a spear sticking out of it. This is considered proof that early humans were active hunters with specialized tool kits.

"Hunting large animals was a risky business. Long spears were thrust into an animal, enabling our ancestors to hunt from a somewhat safer distance than was possible with earlier weapons" (http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/behavior/oldest-wooden-spear, accessed 05-10-2010).

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The Oldest Almost Complete Mitochondrial Genome Sequence of a Hominin Circa 400,000 BCE

The "Homo Heidelbergensis Cranium 5" from Sima de los Huesos in Spain.

The exterior of the Denivosa Cave

Molar found in Denisova Cave of the Altay Mountains in Southern Siberia.

On December 4, 2013 Matthias Meyer, Eduald Carbonell and Svante Pääbo and colleagues reported that the almost complete mitochondrial genome sequence of a hominin from Sima de los Huesos in Spain, dating back roughly 400,000 years, shows that it is closely related to the lineage leading to mitochonrial genomes of Denisovans, an eastern Eurasian sister group to Neanderthals.

"The fossil, a thigh bone found in Spain, had previously seemed to many experts to belong to a forerunner of Neanderthals. But its DNA tells a very different story. It most closely resembles DNA from an enigmatic lineage of humans known as Denisovans. Until now, Denisovans were known only from DNA retrieved from 80,000-year-old remains in Siberia, 4,000 miles east of where the new DNA was found.

"The mismatch between the anatomical and genetic evidence surprised the scientists, who are now rethinking human evolution over the past few hundred thousand years. It is possible, for example, that there are many extinct human populations that scientists have yet to discover. They might have interbred, swapping DNA. Scientists hope that further studies of extremely ancient human DNA will clarify the mystery" (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/05/science/at-400000-years-oldest-human-dna-yet-found-raises-new-mysteries.html?hp&_r=0, accessed 12-04-2013).

Meyer et al, "A mitochondrial genome sequence of a hominin from Sima de ls Huesos", Nature (2013) doi:10.1038/nature12788.

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The Oldest Fossil Remains of Anatomically Modern Humans Circa 195,000 BCE

Scull from the River Omo. (Click on image to view larger.)

The bones of an early member of our species, Homo sapiens, known as Omo I, excavated from Ethiopia's Kibish rock formation. The bones are kept in the National Museum of Ethiopia. When the first bones from Omo I were found in 1967, they were thought to be 130,000 years old. Later, 160,000-year-old bones of our species were found elsewhere. Now, a new study by scientists from the University of Utah and elsewhere determined that Omo I lived about 195,000 years ago -- the oldest known bones of the human species. (Credit: John Fleagle, Stony Brook University) (Click on image to view larger.)

Location of Omo Valley in Ethiopia, Africa. (Click on image to view larger.)

Between 1967 and 1974 a scientific team from the Kenya National Museums directed by Richard Leakey and others discovered a collection of hominid bones at the Omo Kibish sites near the Omo River, in Omo National Park in south-western Eithiopia.  These fossil bones, which include two partial skulls as well as arm, leg, foot and pelvis bones, are known as the Omo remains. In 2013, when I wrote this entry, these were the oldest fossil remains of anatomically modern humans, or anatomically modern Homo sapiens—individuals with the range of phenotypes of modern humans.

"In 2004, the geologic layers around the fossils were dated, and the authors of the dating study concluded that the 'preferred estimate of the age of the Kibish hominids is 195 ± 5 ka [thousand years ago]", which would make the fossils the oldest known Homo sapiens remains. In a 2005 article on the Omo remains, Nature magazine said that, because of the fossils' age, Ethiopia is the current choice for the 'cradle of Homo sapiens' " (Wikipedia article on Omo remains, accessed 08-21-2013).

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Early Humans Use Heat-Treated Stone for Tools Circa 164,000 BCE – 70,000 BCE

A silcrete nodule exhibiting the signs of experimental heat-treatment. Photocredit: Science/AAAS. (View Larger)

Kyle S. Brown, a doctoral student at the University of Cape Town, and colleagues published "Fire as an Engineering Tool of Early Modern Humans," Science, 14 August 2009: 325, 859-62.

"The controlled use of fire was a breakthrough adaptation in human evolution. It first provided heat and light and later allowed the physical properties of materials to be manipulated for the production of ceramics and metals. The analysis of tools at multiple sites shows that the source stone materials were systematically manipulated with fire to improve their flaking properties. Heat treatment predominates among silcrete tools at ~72 thousand years ago (ka) and appears as early as 164 ka at Pinnacle Point, on the south coast of South Africa. Heat treatment demands a sophisticated knowledge of fire and an elevated cognitive ability and appears at roughly the same time as widespread evidence for symbolic behavior" (Science).

Brown et al report finding stone tools that show signs of being heated to about 600 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat-treating, most likely by burying a stone under a fire, made a stone easier to knap, or shape into a tool by striking it with another stone.

"Archaeologists were studying several sites on the South African coast, with artifacts dating from 72,000 to 164,000 years ago that would have been made by modern humans from the African Middle Stone Age. Mr. Brown, an archaeological knapper who tries to replicate ancient tools, said they noticed that blades found at the site, made from a stone called silcrete, did not match silcrete obtained from outcroppings in the area. 'We realized we were missing something,' he said.

"They experimented by heat-treating some of the stone themselves. 'When we pulled it out of the fire and flaked it, it did look like the kind of stone we were finding at our site,' Mr. Brown said. Their findings are published in Science.

"The researchers had to show that the tools they found were intentionally heated to improve workability, not accidentally through a bushfire or other means. They found tools in areas where there was no evidence of burning. And they conducted tests on some of the artifacts, including one that showed that flaked surfaces had a glossiness that occurs only when the stone has been heated, proving that the stones were heated first and then worked into tools" (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/18/science/18obfire.html?_r=1&hpw).

♦ "The find also adds weight to the argument that modern humans were acting in sophisticated ways long before they came to Europe about 35,000 years ago--and that they were engaged in far more complex behavior than were the Neandertals who lived at the same time, says anthropologist Alison Brooks of George Washington University in Washington, D.C. 'This is another piece of evidence that modern humans had made a lot of discoveries that Neandertals had not' "(http://sciencenow.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/2009/813/1).

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Evidence for the Origin of Language in Southwestern Africa Circa 150,000 BCE – 50,000 BCE

Map showing origin and spread of language from southern Africa.  Graphic from the journal Science and The New York Times. (Click on image to view larger.)

On April 15, 2011 Quentin D. Atkinson of the University of Auckland, New Zealand reported evidence for the origin of language in Southwestern Africa.

"Phonemic Diversity Supports a Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from Africa,Science, 332, no. 6027, 15 April 2011, 346-349: 

"Human genetic and phenotypic diversity declines with distance from Africa, as predicted by a serial founder effect in which successive population bottlenecks during range expansion progressively reduce diversity, underpinning support for an African origin of modern humans. Recent work suggests that a similar founder effect may operate on human culture and language. Here I show that the number of phonemes used in a global sample of 504 languages is also clinal and fits a serial founder–effect model of expansion from an inferred origin in Africa. This result, which is not explained by more recent demographic history, local language diversity, or statistical non-independence within language families, points to parallel mechanisms shaping genetic and linguistic diversity and supports an African origin of modern human languages" (Abstract)

"The detection of such an ancient signal in language is surprising. Because words change so rapidly, many linguists think that languages cannot be traced very far back in time. The oldest language tree so far reconstructed, that of the Indo-European family, which includes English, goes back 9,000 years at most.

"Quentin D. Atkinson, a biologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, has shattered this time barrier, if his claim is correct, by looking not at words but at phonemes — the consonants, vowels and tones that are the simplest elements of language. He has found a simple but striking pattern in some 500 languages spoken throughout the world: a language area uses fewer phonemes the farther that early humans had to travel from Africa to reach it.  

"Some of the click-using languages of Africa have more than 100 phonemes, whereas Hawaiian, toward the far end of the human migration route out of Africa, has only 13. English has 45 phonemes" (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/15/science/15language.html?hp, accessed 04-15-2011).

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The Earliest Known Forms of Human Adornment Circa 132,000 BCE – 98,000 BCE

Photocredit: James Di Loreto, & Donald H. Hurlbert, Smithsonian Institution. (View Larger)

Nassarius shell beads found in Es Skhūl, Israel are thought to be the earliest surviving forms of human adornment. Assemblages of perforated Nassarius shells, a marine species significantly different from local fauna, have been recovered from the area, suggesting that Es Skhul people may have collected and employed the shells symbolically as beads, as they are unlikely to have been used as food.

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The Earliest Evidence of Sea Voyages Circa 130,000 BCE

Stone tools found on Crete dating back over 130,000 years suggest that prehistoric civilizations took to the sea much earlier than previously thought. (view larger)

Whether or not pre-modern humans made the journeys deliberately or were washed ashore by accident, the finding, by Thomas F. Strasser and Eleni Panagapoulou, of Lower Palaeolithic flint handaxes, cleavers, and scrapers dating from at least 130,000 BCE at nine sites near the town of Plakias on Crete shows that early humans travelled out of Africa by sea much earlier than had previously been estimated. Some of these stone tools could be significantly older than circa 130,000 BCE since they resemble hand axes fashioned in Africa circa 800,000 BCE by early hominins.

"The cliffs and caves above the shore, the researchers said, have been uplifted by tectonic forces where the African plate goes under and pushes up the European plate. The exposed uplifted layers represent the sequence of geologic periods that have been well studied and dated, in some cases correlated to established dates of glacial and interglacial periods of the most recent ice age. In addition, the team analyzed the layer bearing the tools and determined that the soil had been on the surface 130,000 to 190,000 years ago.  

"Dr. Runnels said he considered this a minimum age for the tools themselves. They include not only quartz hand axes, but also cleavers and scrapers, all of which are in the Acheulean style. The tools could have been made millenniums before they became, as it were, frozen in time in the Cretan cliffs, the archaeologists said. Dr. Runnels suggested that the tools could be at least twice as old as the geologic layers. Dr. Strasser said they could be as much as 700,000 years old. Further explorations are planned this summer. The 130,000-year date would put the discovery in a time when Homo sapiens had already evolved in Africa, sometime after 200,000 years ago. Their presence in Europe did not become apparent until about 50,000 years ago.

"Archaeologists can only speculate about who the toolmakers were. One hundred and thirty thousand years ago, modern humans shared the world with other hominids, like Neanderthals and Homo heidelbergensis. The Acheulean culture is thought to have started with Homo erectus.  

"The standard hypothesis had been that Acheulean toolmakers reached Europe and Asia via the Middle East, passing mainly through what is now Turkey into the Balkans. The new finds suggest that their dispersals were not confined to land routes. They may lend credibility to proposals of migrations from Africa across the Strait of Gibraltar to Spain. Crete’s southern shore where the tools were found is 200 miles from North Africa.  

“ 'We can’t say the toolmakers came 200 miles from Libya,' Dr. Strasser said. 'If you’re on a raft, that’s a long voyage, but they might have come from the European mainland by way of shorter crossings through Greek islands.'  

"But archaeologists and experts on early nautical history said the discovery appeared to show that these surprisingly ancient mariners had craft sturdier and more reliable than rafts. They also must have had the cognitive ability to conceive and carry out repeated water crossing over great distances in order to establish sustainable populations producing an abundance of stone artifacts" (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/16/science/16archeo.html, accessed 01-06-2011).

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The First Complete Neanderthal Genome Sequence Circa 128,000 BCE

Svante Pääbo.

A map of the Altai Mountain range.

On December 18, 2013 Svante Pääbo and colleagues from the Department of Evolutionary Genetics, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, together with scientists from research centers in America, China, Russia and other countries, announced that they sequenced the complete genome of a 130,000 year old Neanderthal woman from a single toe found in a Siberian cave in the Altai Mountains. There DNA evidence has been unusually well preserved because of very low average temperature. Comparison of this complete Neanderthal genome with those of 25 modern humans enabled the authors to compile a list of mutations that evolved in modern humans after their ancestors branched off from Neanderthals some 600,000 years ago. "The list of modern human things is quite short," said John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin who was not involved in the study. The paper, published in the journal Nature, was entitled "The complete genome sequence of a Neanderthal from the Altai Mountains"  doi:10.1038/nature12886.

The abstract read as follows:

"We present a high-quality genome sequence of a Neanderthal woman from Siberia. We show that her parents were related at the level of half-siblings and that mating among close relatives was common among her recent ancestors. We also sequenced the genome of a Neanderthal from the Caucasus to low coverage. An analysis of the relationships and population history of available archaic genomes and 25 present-day human genomes shows that several gene flow events occurred among Neanderthals, Denisovans and early modern humans, possibly including gene flow into Denisovans from an unknown archaic group. Thus, interbreeding, albeit of low magnitude, occurred among many hominin groups in the Late Pleistocene. In addition, the high-quality Neanderthal genome allows us to establish a definitive list of substitutions that became fixed in modern humans after their separation from the ancestors of Neanderthals and Denisovans."

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Tools for Capturing Fast or Dangerous Prey Circa 104,000 BCE

A projectile point, estimated to be over 104,000 years old, uncovered in Omo Kibish, Ethipia. Photocredit: Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution. (View Larger)

Stone or bone projectile points, such as those found in Omo Kibish, Ethiopia, attached to spears or darts, enabled humans to exploit fast-moving prey like birds and large, dangerous prey like mammoths.

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Scientists Sequence Woolly Mammoth Genome--the First of an Extinct Animal Circa 100,000 BCE

The largest European specimen of a Wooly Mammoth.

A Steppe Mammoth skull in Sibera.

A male Asian Elephant in India.

A chart from the Mammoth Genome Project depicting gene-encoding bases on chromosomes of both a human and a mammoth. 

On November 19, 2008 scientists from the Mammoth Genome Project at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, reported the genome-wide sequence of the woolly mammoth, an extinct species of elephant that was adapted to living in the cold environment of the northern hemisphere.  The woolly mammoth, Mammuthus primigenius, was a species of mammoth, the common name for the extinct elephant genus Mammuthus. One of the last in a line of mammoth species, it diverged from the steppe mammothM. trogontherii, about 200,000 years ago in eastern Asia. Its closest extant relative is the Asian elephant.

The genome sequence of the woolly mammoth was the first sequence of the genome of an extinct animal, and it opened up the possibility of reconstructing species from the last Ice Age.

"They sequenced four billion DNA bases using next-generation DNA-sequencing instruments and a novel approach that reads ancient DNA highly efficiently."

'Previous studies on extinct organisms have generated only small amounts of data," said Stephan C. Schuster, Penn State professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and the project's other leader. "Our dataset is 100 times more extensive than any other published dataset for an extinct species, demonstrating that ancient DNA studies can be brought up to the same level as modern genome projects' (quoted from Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News accessed 11-21-2008).

" 'By deciphering this genome we could, in theory, generate data that one day may help other researchers to bring the woolly mammoth back to life by inserting the uniquely mammoth DNA sequences into the genome of the modern-day elephant,' Stephan Schuster of Pennsylvania State University, who helped lead the research, said in a statement." (quoted from Reuters 11-19-2008, accessed 11-21-2008).

"The appearance and behaviour of this species are among the best studied of any prehistoric animal due to the discovery of frozen carcasses in Siberia and Alaska, as well as skeletons, teeth, stomach contents, dung, and depiction from life in prehistoric cave paintings. Mammoth remains had long been known in Asia before they became known to Europeans in the 17th century. The origin of these remains was long a matter of debate, and often explained as being remains oflegendary creatures. The animal was only identified as an extinct species of elephant by Georges Cuvier in 1796." (Wikipedia article on Woolly Mammoth, accessed 10-31-2013).

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The Oldest Intentional Burial Circa 100,000 BCE

Pieces of ochre excavated in Qafzeh, Israel, suggesting intentional burial. Photocredit: James Di Loreto, & Donald H. Hurlbert, Smithsonian Institution. (View Larger)

The oldest intentional burial site was discovered in 1933 by R. Neuville at Qafzeh, Israel.  The remains of as many as 15 individuals were found in a cave, along with 71 pieces of red ocher and ocher-stained stone tools. The ocher was found near the bones, suggesting it was used in a ritual" (http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/behavior/oldest-intentional-burial, accessed 05-10-2010).

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The Earliest Paint Workshop Circa 100,000 BCE

Ablone shell containing red ochre rich mixture. Image by Grethe Moell Pedersen. (Click on image to view larger.)

At Blombos Cave, 200 miles east of Cape Town, South Africa, Christopher S. Henshilwood, of the University of Bergen in Norway and the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and a team of researchers from Australia, France, Norway and South Africa discovered the earliest paint workshop in 2008. The site contained the tools and ingredients with which early modern humans most probably mixed some of the first known paint.  Accurate dating of the material, and publication of the results did not occur until October 2011. Much of the analysis and dating of the material was directed by Francesco d’Errico of the University of Bordeaux in France.

"These cave artisans had stones for pounding and grinding colorful dirt enriched with a kind of iron oxide to a powder, known as ocher. This was blended with the binding fat of mammal-bone marrow and a dash of charcoal. Traces of ocher were left on the tools, and samples of the reddish compound were collected in large abalone shells, where the paint was liquefied, stirred and scooped out with a bone spatula.  

"In the workshop remains, archaeologists said they were seeing the earliest example yet of how emergent Homo sapiens processed ocher, one of the species’ first pigments in wide use, its red color apparently rich in symbolic significance. The early humans may have applied the concoction to their skin for protection or simply decoration, experts suggested. Perhaps it was their way of making social and artistic statements on their bodies or their artifacts.  

"Of special importance to the scientists who made the discovery, the ocher workshop showed that early humans, whose anatomy was modern, had also begun thinking like us. In a report published online on Thursday in the journal Science, the researchers called this evidence of early conceptual abilities 'a benchmark in the evolution of complex human cognition.' " (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/14/science/14paint.html?hp, accessed 10-13-2011).

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Katanda Bone Harpoon Point 88,000 BCE – 78,000 BCE

The Katanda Bone Harpoon Point. Photocredit: Smithsonian Institution.

In 1988 Allison Brooks and John Yellin discovered a bone harpoon point in Katanda, Democratic Republic of Congo.

"Humans in Central Africa used some of the earliest barbed points, like this harpoon point, to spear huge prehistoric catfish weighing as much as 68 kg (150 lb)–enough to feed 80 people for two days. Later, humans used harpoons to hunt large, fast marine mammals" (http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/behavior/katanda-bone-harpoon-point, accessed 0510-2010)

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Evidence of Early Trade Routes? Circa 80,000 BCE

Shells of Nassarius gibbosulus, estimated to be around 82,000 years old, found in Morocco. (View Larger)

Nassarius gibbosulus shell beads were discovered in Grotte des Pigeons, Taforalt, Morocco more than 40 km (25 mi) from the Mediterranean Sea, where they originated. "By 40,000 years ago, humans were transporting decorative shells—and perhaps trading them—over areas of more than 500 km (310 mi)" (http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/behavior/ancient-shell-beads, accessed 05-10-2010). 

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Early Attempt to Record Information or Early Art? Circa 75,000 BCE – 73,000 BCE

Pieces of ochre rock decorated with geometric patterns found at Blombos Cave in South Africa, nearly 200 miles from Cape Town, in 2002, have been dated to the Middle Stone Age, equivalent to the European Middle Paleolithic.

"This ocher plaque has marks that may have been used to count or store information. A close-up look at the object shows that the markings are clearly organized. This systematic pattern suggests to some researchers that the markings represent information rather than decoration" (http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/behavior/blombos-ocher-plaque, accessed 05-10-2010).
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Tool Making by Pressure Flaking Discovered in Africa Circa 75,000 BCE

A silcrete stone tool from Blombos Cave in South Africa, finished with pressure flaking. (View Larger)

Discoveries of stone tools with fine edges made by pressure flaking at Blombos Cave in South Africa show that this highly skillful and delicate method of sharpening and retouching stone tools appears to have developed at least 75,000 years ago, more than 50,000 years earlier than previously thought.

"Pressure flaking has been considered to be an Upper Paleolithic innovation dating to ~20,000 years ago (20 ka). Replication experiments show that pressure flaking best explains the morphology of lithic artifacts recovered from the ~75-ka Middle Stone Age levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa. The technique was used during the final shaping of Still Bay bifacial points made on heat-treated silcrete. Application of this innovative technique allowed for a high degree of control during the detachment of individual flakes, resulting in thinner, narrower, and sharper tips on bifacial points. This technology may have been first invented and used sporadically in Africa before its later widespread adoption" (Mourre, Villa, Henshilwood, "Early Use of Pressure Flaking on Lithic Artifacts at Blombos Cave, South Africa," Science 29 October 2010: Vol. 330. no. 6004, pp. 659 - 662 DOI: 10.1126/science.1195550)

"The technique provides a better means of controlling the sharpness, thickness and overall shape of bifacial tools like spearheads and stone knives, said Paola Villa, a curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History and a study co-author. Prior to the Blombos Cave discovery, the earliest evidence of pressure flaking was from the Upper Paleolithic Solutrean culture in France and Spain roughly 20,000 years ago." 

"Pressure flaking adds to the repertoire of technological advances during the Still Bay (period) and helps define it as a time when novel ideas were rapidly introduced," wrote the authors in Science. "This flexible approach to technology may have conferred an advantage to the groups of Homo sapiens who migrated out of Africa about 60,000 years ago" (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/10/101028141753.htm).

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At Sibudu Cave, the Oldest Known Early Bedding and Use of Medicinal Plants Circa 75,000 BCE

Sediments containing ancient mattresses at Sibudu Caves.  Photo by Lyn Wadley. (Click on image to view larger.)

In December 2011 Archaeologist Lyn Wadley of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, and team, reported the discovery at Sibudu Cave of the oldest known early bedding and use of medicinal plants:

"Middle Stone Age Bedding Construction and Settlement Patterns at Sibudu, South Africa," Science, 334, no. 6061, 9 December 2011, 1388-1391. 

The abstract of this paper published in Science is unusually accessible and informative, thus I quote verbatim:

"The Middle Stone Age (MSA) is associated with early behavioral innovations, expansions of modern humans within and out of Africa, and occasional population bottlenecks. Several innovations in the MSA are seen in an archaeological sequence in the rock shelter Sibudu (South Africa). At ~77,000 years ago, people constructed plant bedding from sedges and other monocotyledons topped with aromatic leaves containing insecticidal and larvicidal chemicals. Beginning at ~73,000 years ago, bedding was burned, presumably for site maintenance. By ~58,000 years ago, bedding construction, burning, and other forms of site use and maintenance intensified, suggesting that settlement strategies changed. Behavioral differences between ~77,000 and 58,000 years ago may coincide with population fluctuations in Africa.

First paragraph of text (footnotes removed):

"Genetic and phenotypic (skull) data indicate that after 80 thousand years ago (ka), human populations went through bottlenecks, isolations, and subsequent expansions. Concurrently, the Middle Stone Age (MSA) of South Africa witnessed a variety of emerging behavioral practices by anatomically modern humans, including use of shell beads and engraving , innovative stone technology, the creation and use of compound adhesives, heat-treatment of rock, and circumstantial evidence for snares and bows and arrows. Less emphasis has been placed on innovations in domestic organization and settlement strategies, which might also have been influenced by major demographic changes that were occurring in Africa. Here, we present geoarchaeological and archaeobotanical evidence from the South African rock shelter Sibudu for changing domestic practices in the form of construction of plant bedding starting at ~77 ka, approximately 50,000 years earlier than records elsewhere. Most evidence for bedding in the Pleistocene has been inferential, except for that from Esquilleu Cave, Spain; Strathalan B Cave, South Africa, dated 29 to 26 ka; and Ohalo II, Israel, dated to 23 ka."

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From Sibudu Cave: the Earliest Known Creation and Use of Compound Adhesives, Suggesting Complex Cognition Circa 68,000 BCE

Stone tools (segments) with adhesive from Sibudu Cave.  Segment with red ochre visible to the naked eye as well as microscopic views of red ochre and plant gum on the tool. (Click on image to view larger.)

Archaeologist Lyn Wadley of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, and team published "Implications for complex cognition from the hafting of tools with compound adhesives in the Middle Stone Age, South Africa," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) June 16, 2009 vol. 106 no. 24 9590-9594, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0900957106.

At Sibudu Cave, in a sandstone cliff in northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, a site occupied, with some gaps from circa 75,000 BCE to 33,000 BCE, evidence was found of some of the earliest examples of modern human technology. The complexity of heat-treated mixed compound gluing found in this cave has been presented as evidence of continuity between early human cognition and that of modern humans.

Quoting from the beginning of Wadley's paper (footnotes removed):

"Archaeologists often use symbolic material culture as a marker of modern behavior, but few agree on definitions of either term or explore the types of mental architecture required for symbolic innovations. Here, we move away from the contentious issue of symbolism and draw on the combined expertise of cognitive and earth scientists to create a fresh way of recognizing, in the deep past, cognitive abilities that overlap with our own. People today have a capacity for novel, sustained multilevel operations; this ability may have arisen from neural connectivity in part of the prefrontal cortex. The capacity may be recognizable in some technologies, and we use compound adhesive manufacture as our example. To demonstrate complex cognition, we must show that some executive steps required for compound adhesive manufacture are not possible without mental abilities of the kind implied in the ninth subsystem of the Barnard et al. model of mental architecture. Here, abstract meanings and sophisticated organization of action sequences determine decision making. An earlier eighth subsystem would have been mentally incapable of processing 2 levels of meaning simultaneously or of generating fully abstract concepts about behavior.  

"The use of simple (1-component) adhesives is ancient; for example, birch-bark tar was found on 2 flakes from ≈200,000 years (200 ka) ago at a site in Italy. At ≈40 ka, bitumen was found on stone tools in Syria, and a similarly aged site in Kenya yielded tools with red ochre stains that imply the use of multicomponent glue. Traces of even earlier (≈70 ka) compound adhesives occur, together with microfractures consistent with hafting, on Middle Stone Age (MSA) stone tools from Sibudu Cave, South Africa (see SI Text and Table S1). Several recipes are evident: sometimes plant gum and red ochre (natural iron oxide–hematite–Fe2O3) traces occur on tool portions that were once inserted in hafts. Other tools have brown plant gums and black or white fat, but no ochre. . . . 

"Hunters' lives depend on reliable weapons. This dependency would have been a powerful incentive in the past to create trustworthy adhesives for composite weapons. Our experiments intimate that by at least 70 ka (and earlier evidence may eventually be found at sites other than Sibudu) people were competent chemists, alchemists, and pyrotechnologists. We propose that these artisans were exceedingly skilled; they understood the properties of their adhesive ingredients, and they were able to manipulate them knowingly.  

"Although we have devoted much time to discussing the mechanical and chemical effects of adding ochre to plant gum for the creation of compound adhesives, we have done so to highlight the behavioral implications of this technology. We shall never know for sure whether the process of creating compound adhesive from disparate ingredients was regarded as symbolic in the past. However, our familiarity with compound adhesive manufacture from natural ingredients helps us make interpretations about the type of cognition that the early artisans must have had. Some birds and wasps also create compound adhesives, but they do so instinctively with simply coded operational sequences, “cognigrams,” in which the distance between problem and solution is far smaller than that demonstrated by the human action of making a composite hunting weapon. One obvious difference in human manufacture of compound glue is the use of pyrotechnology. Temperature control depends on understanding wood types, their moisture contents, and their propensity to form long-lasting coals. Vigilance is essential because our adhesives burned, or boiled to form air bubbles, when they were too close to the fire. Overdehydration caused loss of cohesiveness, whereas boiling adhesive created weakness.  

"The glue maker needs to pay careful attention to the condition of ingredients before and during the procedure and must be able to switch attention between aspects of the methodology. To hold many courses of action in the mind involves multitasking, which is one trait of modern human minds, notwithstanding that even today, some people find multilevel operations difficult. On-the-spot compensations have to be made for the capricious character of natural ingredients. Viscosity of Acacia gums varies, demanding different quantities of loading agent. Powdered ochres are also inconsistent: even when they are visually similar because of red staining by minute quantities of hematite, which has pervasive pigmenting capacity, they can be dissimilar with respect to Fe and Si percentages, particle size, pH, and ZP. Thus, ongoing evaluation and control of texture, viscosity, plasticity, and temperature is required; no set recipe or routine can guarantee a satisfactory adhesive product.  

"Mental flexibility is not the only complex attribute implied by our experiments. Artisans living in the MSA must have been able to think in abstract terms about properties of plant gums and natural iron products, even though they lacked empirical means for gauging them. Qualities of gum, such as wet, sticky, and viscous, were mentally abstracted, and these meanings counterpoised against ochre properties, such as dry, loose, and dehydrating. Simultaneously, the artisan had to think about the correct position for placing stone inserts on the hafts. Successful mental rotation requires advanced working memory capacity  and, in turn, complex cognition. Capacity for multilevel operations, abstract thought, and mental rotation are all required for the process of compound adhesive manufacture. Although fully modern behavior is presently recognizable relatively late in the MSA, the circumstantial evidence provided here implies that people who made compound adhesives in the MSA shared at least some advanced behaviors with their modern successors."

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Computational Micro-Biomechanical Analysis of Neanderthal's Fossilized Hyoid Bone Suggests that Neanderthals Could Speak Circa 60,000 BCE

A computational micro-biomechanical analysis of a Neanderthal hyoid bone found in Kebara Cave, Israel, suggests that Neanderthals could speak. This was suspected since discovery in 1989 of a Neanderthal hyoid that looked like that of humans. A study published in December 2013 suggests that not only did the bone resemble that of humans but it was also used in a similar way.

"Stephen Wroe, from the University of New England, Armidale, NSW, Australia, said: 'We would argue that this is a very significant step forward. It shows that the Kebara 2 hyoid doesn't just look like those of modern humans - it was used in a very similar way.'

"He told BBC News that it not only changed our understanding of Neanderthals, but also of ourselves.

"' Many would argue that our capacity for speech and language is among the most fundamental of characteristics that make us human. If Neanderthals also had language then they were truly human, too.' "

Ruggero D'Anastasio, Stephen Wroe et al, "Micro-Biomechanics of the Kebara 2 Hyoid and Its Implications for Speech in Neanderthals," Plos One, December 18, 2013, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.008226. The Abstract of the article:

"The description of a Neanderthal hyoid from Kebara Cave (Israel) in 1989 fuelled scientific debate on the evolution of speech and complex language. Gross anatomy of the Kebara 2 hyoid differs little from that of modern humans. However, whether Homo neanderthalensis could use speech or complex language remains controversial. Similarity in overall shape does not necessarily demonstrate that the Kebara 2 hyoid was used in the same way as that of Homo sapiens. The mechanical performance of whole bones is partly controlled by internal trabecular geometries, regulated by bone-remodelling in response to the forces applied. Here we show that the Neanderthal and modern human hyoids also present very similar internal architectures and micro-biomechanical behaviours. Our study incorporates detailed analysis of histology, meticulous reconstruction of musculature, and computational biomechanical analysis with models incorporating internal micro-geometry. Because internal architecture reflects the loadings to which a bone is routinely subjected, our findings are consistent with a capacity for speech in the Neanderthals." 

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The Earliest Sewing Needle, Made of Bone Circa 59,000 BCE

In 2008 Lucinda Backwell, Francesco d'Errico, and Lyn Wadley discovered bone implements in Middle Stone Age (MSA) deposits at Sibudu Cave, South Africa, confirming the existence of a bone tool industry for the Howiesons Poort (HP) technocomplex, circa 63,000 BCE to circa 57,000 BCE. The bone tools included two points, one of which is consistent with sewing needles, and the end of a polished spatula-shaped piece of the type used to work leather. When I wrote this entry in 2013 the sewing needle found at Sibudu Cave was the earliest known.

Backwell L, d'Errico F, Wadley L.. "Middle Stone Age bone tools from the Howiesons Poort layers, Sibudu Cave, South Africa," Journal of Archaeological Science 35 (2008)1566–1580. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2007.11.006

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Neanderthals Made the First Specialized Bone Tools in Europe Circa 49,000 BCE – 43,000 BCE

A bone tool known as a lissoir, possibly used to prepare animal skins. Image courtesy of the Abri Peyrony and Pech de l'Azé I Projects. (Click on image to view larger.)

Timeline.

In August 2013 archaeologist Marie Soressi from Leiden University and colleagues published a paper describing the oldest specialized bone tools found in Europe, from the Pech-de-l'Azé I excavation site in southwestern France in 2005 and a nearby site called Abri Peyrony (Haut de Combe-Capelle). Notably these tools were created by Neanderthals (Neandertals) before modern humans are thought to have arrived in Europe (circa 42,000-38,000 BCE).

"Modern humans replaced Neandertals ∼40,000 y ago. Close to the time of replacement, Neandertals show behaviors similar to those of the modern humans arriving into Europe, including the use of specialized bone tools, body ornaments, and small blades. It is highly debated whether these modern behaviors developed before or as a result of contact with modern humans. Here we report the identification of a type of specialized bone tool, lissoir, previously only associated with modern humans. The microwear preserved on one of these lissoir is consistent with the use of lissoir in modern times to obtain supple, lustrous, and more impermeable hides. These tools are from a Neandertal context proceeding the replacement period and are the oldest specialized bone tools in Europe. As such, they are either a demonstration of independent invention by Neandertals or an indication that modern humans started influencing European Neandertals much earlier than previously believed. Because these finds clearly predate the oldest known age for the use of similar objects in Europe by anatomically modern humans, they could also be evidence for cultural diffusion from Neandertals to modern humans" (http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/08/08/1302730110, accessed 08-14-2013).

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Proof that Neanderthals Ate Vegetables as Well as Meat, in the Earliest Dated Human Faeces Circa 48,000 BCE

Readers of this database will have observed that entries tend to focus on "firsts" of various kinds. This entry describes a very special kind of first: the discovery of the earliest dated human faeces, and conclusions drawn from their analysis.

On June 25, 2014 Ainara Sistiaga, a PhD student at the University of La Laguna on the Canary Islands, and colleagues, reported that Neanderthal faeces collected from the remnants of a campfire dating to about 48,000 BCE at the El Salt archaeological site near Alicante on Spain's Mediterranean coast, contained traces of digested vegetables as well as meat. Prior to this find the only evidence that Neanderthals might have eaten meat was plant matter found in the dental tartar of Neanderthals—some of it cooked and some of it medicinal.

Sitiaga, Mailol, Galván, Summons, "The Neanderthal Meal: A New Perspective Using Faecal Biomarkers," PLOS | ONE. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0101045

"Neanderthal dietary reconstructions have, to date, been based on indirect evidence and may underestimate the significance of plants as a food source. While zooarchaeological and stable isotope data have conveyed an image of Neanderthals as largely carnivorous, studies on dental calculus and scattered palaeobotanical evidence suggest some degree of contribution of plants to their diet. However, both views remain plausible and there is no categorical indication of an omnivorous diet. Here we present direct evidence of Neanderthal diet using faecal biomarkers, a valuable analytical tool for identifying dietary provenance. Our gas chromatography-mass spectrometry results from El Salt (Spain), a Middle Palaeolithic site dating to ca. 50,000 yr. BP, represents the oldest positive identification of human faecal matter. We show that Neanderthals, like anatomically modern humans, have a high rate of conversion of cholesterol to coprostanol related to the presence of required bacteria in their guts. Analysis of five sediment samples from different occupation floors suggests that Neanderthals predominantly consumed meat, as indicated by high coprostanol proportions, but also had significant plant intake, as shown by the presence of 5β-stigmastanol. This study highlights the applicability of the biomarker approach in Pleistocene contexts as a provider of direct palaeodietary information and supports the opportunity for further research into cholesterol metabolism throughout human evolution" (Abstract).

Webb, Jonathan, "Oldest human faeces show Neanderthals ate vegetables," BBC.com/news/science-environment-27981702.

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Discovery of the Cro-Magnons, the First European Early Modern Humans Circa 41,000 BCE

Cro Magnon skull. (Click on image to view larger.)

Abri de Cro-Magnon - rock shelter of Cro Magnon. (Click on image to view larger.)

After workmen stumbled across extinct animal bones, flint tools and a human skull in a rock shelter near the French village of Les Eyzies, French geologist and prehistorian Louis Lartet was asked to conduct excavations. In March 1868 Lartet discovered the first five skeletons of early modern humans at the Abri de Cro-Magnon (rock shelter of Cro-Magnon), near the commune of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil in southwestern France. He discovered the partial skeletons of four prehistoric adults and one infant along with perforated shells used as ornaments, an object made from ivory, and worked reindeer antler. These Cro-magnon humans were soon identified as a new prehistoric human race distinct from the Neanderthal fossils discovered in Germany in 1856.

Lartet, L. “Mémoire sur une sepulture des anciens troglodytes du Périgord.” Annales des sciences naturelles: Zoologie et paléontologie ser 5, 10 (1868) 133-45.

Lartet, L. “Une sépulture des troglodytes du Périgord,” Bulletins de la Société d’Anthropologie de Paris 3 (1868) 335-349.

(This entry was last revised on April 16, 2014.)

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The First Specimen to be Recognized as an Early Human Fossil Circa 40,000 BCE

Fossilized scullcap of Neanderthal 1. (Click on image to view larger.

Drawing of fossilized scullcap of Neanderthal 1. (Click on image to view larger.)

Map showing range of Neanderthals. From Science Magazine. (Click on image to view larger.)

Map showing location of Neander Valley in Germany. (Click on image to view larger.)

In August 1856, laborers in a mining operation discovered human bones in the Kleine Feldhofer Grotte in the Neandertal (Neanderthal), a small limestone valley in northern Germany. This finding, consisting of a partial skull, pelvis and assorted long bones, which later became known as Neanderthal 1, became the first specimen to be recognized as an early human fossil. The oval shaped skull with a low, receding forehead and distinct browridges, the thick, strong bones were distinctly different from modern humans.

The bones were sent to Johann Carl Fuhlrott, a science teacher in Elberfeld, who immediately recognized that the bones were a previously unknown type of human. This conclusion was borne out by Hermann Schaaffhausen, a physician and anthropologist in Bonn to whom Fuhlrott sent a cast of the cranium. Over the winter of 1856–57 Schaaffhausen examined the Neanderthal bones in detail, and in 1857 he and Fuhlrott published preliminary announcements of the discovery in the Verhandlungen. des naturhistorischen Vereines des preussischen Rheinlande und Westphalens.XIV (1857) xxxviii-xlii, l-lii.  Fuhlrott’s account appears on page l (Roman numeral pagination).

In 1864, Neanderthal 1 became the first fossil hominin species to be named. Geologist William King suggested the name Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthal Man). Several years after Neanderthal 1 was discovered, scientists realized that prior fossil discoveries, by Philippe-Charles Schmerling in 1829 at Engis, Belgium, and in 1848 at Forbes Quarry, Gibraltar (Gibralter 1)—were also Neanderthals. Even though they weren’t recognized at the time, these earlier discoveries, and that of the so-called "Red Lady of Paviland" by William Buckland at Paviland Cave (Goat's Hole) South Wales in 1823, were among the first early human fossils ever found.

♦ As recently as March 1999 archaeologists Ralf Schmitz and Jurgen Thissen pinpointed the site where Neanderthal 1 was discovered in 1856, and dug up missing parts of the original skeleton that had been passed over in the original excavation. They found 20 bone fragments— a molar, a vertebra, ribs, a toe, and a bit of pelvis; one of the fragments exactly fit the left knee joint of the specimen found in 1856. Continuation of the excavation in 2000 recovered thousands of artefacts. Mitochondrial DNA of two samples fresh from the ground were fully sequenced, and completed in 2009, finally allowing an objective biological means of comparison between Neanderthals and modern humans.

 

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The Denisova Hominin, a Third Kind of Human Circa 39,000 BCE

Molar found in Denisova Cave of the Altay Mountains in Southern Siberia. (Click on image to view larger.)

The Family Tree - Neanderthals and Denisovans were closely related. DNA comparisons suggest that our ancestors diverged from theirs some 500,000 years ago. (Click on image to view larger.)

 

 A Tale of Three Humans

A third kind of human, called Denisovans, seems to have coexisted in Asia with Neanderthals and early modern humans. The latter two are known from abundant fossils and artifacts. Denisovans are defined so far only by the DNA from one bone chip and two teeth—but it reveals a new twist to the human story.

Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution.

On March 24, 2010 scientists announced the discovery of a finger bone fragment of an eight year old girl who lived about 41,000 years ago, found in the remote Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains in Siberia, a cave which was also inhabited by Neanderthals and modern humans. Discovery of two teeth and a toe bone belonging to different members of the same population were later reported.These three objects are the only specimens from which the Denisova hominins are known. The average annual temperature of Denisova Cave remains at 0°C (32°F), a factor which contributed to the preservation of archaic DNA among the diverse prehistoric remains discovered, in addition to the Denisova hominin remains. 

Using a new technique for sequencing ancient DNA from bone, in August 2012 scientists from the Max Planck Institute reconstructed the genome of the Denisova hominins and announced that they were a new species, that they interbred with our species, and that the DNA results suggest that they had dark hari, eyes, and skin.  

"Analysis of the mtDNA of the finger bone showed it to be genetically distinct from the mtDNAs of Neanderthals and modern humans [Katsnelson 2010]. However, subsequent study of the genome from this specimen suggests this group shares a common origin with Neanderthals. They ranged from Siberia to Southeast Asia, and they lived among and interbred with the ancestors of some present-day modern humans, with up to 6% of the DNA of Melanesians and Australian Aboriginies deriving from Denisovans.

"It was in 2008 when Russian archaeologists discovered the finger bone fragment, and nick-named it 'X Woman'. Artifacts, including a bracelet, excavated in the cave at the same level were carbon dated to approximately 40,000 BP.

"A team of scientists led by Johannes Krause and Svante Paabo from the Max Planck Institute in Germany sequenced mtDNA from the fragment. The analysis indicated that modern humans, Neanderthals and the Denisova hominin last shared a common ancestor around 1 million years ago [Katsnelson 2004].

"The mtDNA analysis further suggested this new hominin species was the result of an early migration out of Africa, distinct from the later out-of-Africa migrations associated with Neanderthals and modern humans. Some argue it may be a relic of the earlier African exodus of Homo erectus, because of the tooth size, although this has not been proved. The conclusions of both the excavations and the sequencing are still debatable because the evidence shows that the Denisova Cave has been occupied by all three human forms" (http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/origins/denisova_hominin.php, accessed 07-07-2013).

For images and a very readable account of these discoveries see "The Case of the Missing Ancestor," nationalgeographic.com, July, 2013.

 

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Lyuba: The Best Preserved Mammoth Mummy Circa 39,000 BCE

In May 2007 a Nenets reindeer breeder and hunter Yuri Khudi and his sons discovered a female woolly mammoth calf (Mammuthus primigenius) in the Arctic Yamal Peninsula of Siberia, Russia, washed out from the permafrost along the Yuribey River. This specimen, later named Lyuba after Khudi's wife, was 30-35 days old at the time of death. It weighed 50kg (110 lb) and is about the size of a large dog. Preserved in the Shemanovskiy Museum and Exhibition Center in Salekhard, Russia, it is by far the best preserved mammoth mummy.

"At the time of discovery, the calf was remarkably well-preserved; her eyes and trunk were intact and some fur remained on her body. Lyuba's organs and skin are in perfect condition.The mammoth was transferred to Jikei University School of Medicine in Japan for further study, including computer tomography scans. Lyuba is believed to have suffocated by inhaling mud as she struggled while bogged down in deep mud in the bed of a river which her herd was crossing. Following death, her body may have been colonized by lactic acid-producing bacteria, which "pickled" her, preserving the mammoth in a nearly pristine state. Her skin and organs are intact, and scientists were able to identify milk from her mother in her stomach, and fecal matter in her intestine. The fecal matter may have been eaten by Lyuba to promote development of the intestinal microbial assemblage necessary for digestion of vegetation.Lyuba appears to have been healthy at the time of her death. By examining Lyuba's teeth, researchers hope to gain insight into what caused Ice Age mammals, including the mammoths, to become extinct at the end of the Pleistocene era around 10,000 years ago" (Wikipedia article on Lyuba, accessed 01-25-2014).

Fisher, D.; Tikhonov, A., Kosintsev, P., Rountrey, A., Buigues, B., van der Plicht, J., "Anatomy, death, and preservation of a woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) calf, Yamal Peninsula, northwest Siberia," Quaternary International 255 (March 2012) 94–105. doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2011.05.040.

Kosintsev, P; Lapteva, E., Trofimova, S., Zanina, O., Tikhonov, A., van der Plicht, J. (March 2012). "Environmental reconstruction inferred from the intestinal contents of the Yamal baby mammoth Lyuba (Mammuthus primigenius Blumenbach, 1799)," Quaternary International 255 (March 2012) 231–238. doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2011.03.027

 

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The Earliest Known Examples of Figurative Art Circa 38,000 BCE – 33,000 BCE

The Venus of Schelklingen.

"Despite well over 100 years of research and debate, the origins of art remain contentious. In recent years, abstract depictions have been documented at southern African sites dating to approx 75 kyr [75,000 years] before present (bp) and the earliest figurative art, which is often seen as an important proxy for advanced symbolic communication, has been documented in Europe as dating to between 30 and 40 kyr [30-40,000 years before present]. Here I report the discovery of a female mammoth-ivory figurine in the basal Aurignacian deposit at Hohle Fels Cave in the Swabian Jura of southwestern Germany during excavations in 2008. This figurine was produced at least 35,000 calendar years ago, making it one of the oldest known examples of figurative art. This discovery predates the well-known Venuses from the Gravettian culture by at least 5,000 years and radically changes our views of the context and meaning of the earliest Palaeolithic art" (Nicholas J. Conard, "A female figurine from the basal Aurignacian of Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany," Nature, 459, 248-252 (14 May 2009) | doi:10.1038/nature07995).

The small figurine has been called The Venus of Schelklingen (Venus of Hohle Fels). was found near Schelklingen, Germany.  Belonging to the early Aurignacian, at the very beginning of the Upper Paleolithic and the earliest presence of Homo sapiens (Cro-Magnon) in Europe, "the discovery of the Venus of Schelklingen pushes back the date of the oldest prehistoric sculpture, and the oldest known figurative art altogether, by several millennia, establishing that works of art were being produced throughout the Aurignacian.

"The figurine was discovered in September 2008 in a cave called Hohle Fels (Swabian German for "hollow rock") near Schelklingen, some 15 kilometres (9 mi) west of Ulm, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, by a team from the University of Tübingen led by Prof. Nicholas Conard, who reported their find in Nature.

"The figurine, made of a mammoth tusk, is a representation of the female body, putting emphasis on the vulva and the breasts, and is consequently assumed to be an amulet related to fertility. In place of the head, the figurine has a perforation so that it could be worn as a pendant. Archaeologist John J. Shea suggests it would have taken "tens if not hundreds of hours" to carve. The figurine was found in the cave hall, about 20 metres (66 ft) from the entrance, and about 3 metres (10 ft) below the current ground level. It was broken into fragments, of which six have been recovered, with the left arm and shoulder still missing" (Wikipedia article on Venus of Schelklingen, accessed 05-14-2009).

• In 2003 Nicholas Conard reported the discovery of a carved waterbird looking something like a diving cormorant, and a carved horse head from the same Hohle Fels cave. These are thought to date from 31,000 to 28,000 BCE:

N.J. Conard, "Palaeolithic ivory sculptures from southwestern Germany and the origins of figurative art," Nature 426 (2003) 830–832.

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The First Sturdy Shoes are Invented 38,000 BCE

The introduction of sturdy shoes led weaker toes.

Basing his conclusions on the small toes of humans from prehistoric periods, physical anthropologist Erik Trinkaus concluded that because humans' small toes had become smaller by this time, sturdy shoes may have become the norm. 

"He [Trinkaus] found Neanderthals and early moderns living in Middle Palaeolithic times (100,000 to 40,000 years ago) had thicker, and therefore stronger, lesser toes than those of Upper Palaeolithic people living 26,000 years ago.  

"A shoe-less lifestyle promotes stronger little toes, says Professor Trinkaus, because "when you walk barefoot, you grip the ground with your toes as a natural reflex". Because hard-soled shoes improve both grip and balance, regularly shod people develop weaker little toes.  

"To test the theory that the more delicate toes resulted from shoe use, the Washington University researcher compared the foot bones of early Native Americans, who regularly went barefoot, and contemporary Alaskan Inuits, who sported heavy sealskin boots.  

"Again, he identified chunkier toes in the population that routinely went without shoes. The research suggests shoe-wearers developed weaker toes simply because of the reduced stresses on them during their lifetime; it was not an evolutionary change" (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/4173838.stm, accessed 01-16-2011).

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The Oldest Cave Painting Circa 37,000 BCE

Detail of the "Panel of Hands" from the El Castillo Cave. Photo Courtesy of the University of Bristol. (Click on image to view larger.)

Section of the "Panel of Hands" from the El Castillo Cave. Photo Courtesy of the University of Bristol. (Click on image to view larger.)

In June 2012 a team led by Alistair W. G. Pike of the University of Bristol in England dated the cave painting, "The Panel of Hands," which shows the outline of hands on the walls of the Cueva de El Castillo (Cave of El Castillo) in Puenta Viesgo, Cantabria, Spain, at a minimum of 40,800 years old, making it the oldest dated cave painting,  perhaps 4000 years older than paintings in Chauvet Cave in France, which were previously thought to be the oldest cave paintings. The outlines of hands were made by blowing paint onto the wall using hands as stencils.

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Neanderthal Genome Reveals Interbreeding with Humans Circa 36,000 BCE

Svante Pääbo

In May 2010 paleogeneticist Svante Pääbo and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig published a draft genome sequence of DNA obtained from Neanderthal bones recovered from Vindija Cave that were around 38,000 years old. Neanderthal fossils found in this cave near the city of VaraždinCroatia, are among the best preserved in the world.

In their preliminary draft of the Neanderthal genome announced in February 2009 the scientists indicated that

"Previous mitochondrial analysis of Neanderthal DNA has uncovered no sign that Neanderthals and humans interbred sufficiently to leave a trace. A preliminary analysis across the new genome seems to confirm this conclusion, but more sequence data could overturn this conclusion" (http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16587-first-draft-of-neanderthal-genome-is-unveiled.html#.UnKcfFCsim4. accessed 10-31-2013). 

However, comparison in 2010 of the full Neanderthal sequence with that of modern humans suggested that there was some interbreeding between Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens.

"Bone contains DNA that survives long after an animal dies. Over time, though, strands of DNA break up, and microbes with their own DNA invade the bone. Pääbo's team found ways around both problems with 38,000 and 44,000-year-old bones recovered in Croatia: they used a DNA sequencing machine that rapidly decodes short strands and came up with ways to get rid of the microbial contamination.

"They ended up with short stretches of DNA code that computers stitched into a more complete sequence. This process isn't perfect: Pääbo's team decoded about 5.3 billion letters of Neanderthal DNA, but much of this is duplicates, because – assuming it's the same size as the human genome – the actual Neanderthal genome is only about 3 billion letters long. More than a third of the genome remains unsequenced. . . .

"Any human whose ancestral group developed outside Africa has a little Neanderthal in them – between 1 and 4 per cent of their genome, Pääbo's team estimates. In other words, humans and Neanderthals had sex and had hybrid offspring. A small amount of that genetic mingling survives in "non-Africans" today: Neanderthals didn't live in Africa, which is why sub-Saharan African populations have no trace of Neanderthal DNA" (http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn18869-neanderthal-genome-reveals-interbreeding-with-humans.html#.UnKfSFCsim4, accessed 10-31-2013).

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The Oldest Known Mathematical Artifact 35,000 BCE

Lembobo bone or tally stick. (Click on image to view larger.)

 

The Lebombo bone, the oldest known mathematical artifact, is a tally stick with 29 distinct notches that were deliberately cut into a baboon's fibula. It was discovered within the Border Cave in the Lebombo Mountains of Swaziland.

The Lebombo bone resembles the calendar sticks still used by Bushmen in Namibia.

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The Earliest Musical Instruments Circa 33,000 BCE

A flute, found in the hills west of Ulm Germany, that is believed to be 35,000 years old.

 A bone flute with five finger holes, carved from the hollow bone of a gryphon (griffon) vulture, and found in 2009 at Hohle Fels Cave in the hills west of Ulm, Germany, is the most complete of the musical instruments so far recovered from the caves in the region. A three-hole flute carved from mammoth ivory was uncovered from another cave in the area, as well as two flutes made from the wing bones of a mute swan.

"In an article published online by the journal Nature, Nicholas J. Conard of the University of Tübingen, in Germany, and colleagues wrote, 'These finds demonstrate the presence of a well-established musical tradition at the time when modern humans colonized Europe.'

"Although radiocarbon dates earlier than 30,000 years ago can be imprecise, samples from the bones and associated material were tested independently by two laboratories, in England and Germany, using different methods. Scientists said the data agreed on ages of at least 35,000 years old.

"Dr. Conard, a professor of archaeology, said in an e-mail message from Germany that 'the new flutes must be very close to 40,000 calendar years old and certainly date to the initial settlement of the region.'

"Dr. Conard’s team said that an abundance of stone and ivory artifacts, flint-knapping debris and bones of hunted animals were found in the sediments with the flutes. Many people appeared to have lived and worked there soon after their arrival in Europe, assumed to be around 40,000 years ago and 10,000 years before the native Neanderthals were to become extinct" (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/25/science/25flute.html?scp=1&sq=nicholas%20j%20conard&st=cse).

You can listen to a melody played on a replica of a prehistoric flute at The New York Times link.

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The Earliest Known Carving of a Mammoth Circa 33,000 BCE

37mm long, 7.5 gram figurine, made from mammoth ivory is some 35,000 years old. It is one of the oldest pieces of art ever found.  Photo: Universität Tübingen. (Click on image to view larger.)

Southern entrance (on left) to the big Vogelherd Cave.  Photo:  Jochen Duckeck. (Click on image to view larger.)

Mammoth carving as found at site.  Photo: Universität Tübingen. (Click on image to view larger.)

The mammoth carving was found in 2007 in the spoil from a dig in 1931 by Riek.  Photo: Universität Tübingen. (Click on image to view larger.)

In 2007 Nicholas J. Conard of the University of Tübingen reported that his team discovered an intact carving of a woolly mammoth from the excavations collected from Vogelherd Cave, about 1 km northwest of Stetten-ob-Lontal, Baden-Württemberg, Germany. The cave was known to contain primitive artifacts since it was excavated by Tübingen archaeologist Gustav Reik in 1931. The mammoth carving, dated to roughly 33,000 BCE was found among 7,000 sacks of sedment dug out of the cave by Reik and his crew about eighty years earlier.

"The figure of the woolly mammoth is tiny, measuring just 3.7 cm long and weighing a mere 7.5 grams, and displays skilfully detailed carvings. It is unique in its slim form, pointed tail, powerful legs and dynamically arched trunk. It is decorated with six short incisions, and the soles of the pachyderm's feet show a crosshatch pattern. The miniature lion is 5.6 cm long, has a extended torso and outstretched neck. It is decorated with approximately 30 finely incised crosses on its spine.

"The geological context of the discoveries and radiocarbon dating indicate that the figurines belong to the Aurignacian culture, which refers to an area of southern France and is associated with the arrival of the first modern humans in Europe. Multiple radiocarbon dates from sediment in the Vogelherd Cave yielded ages between 30,000 and 36,000 years ago, the University of Tübingen reports. Some methods give an even older date" (http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/ice-age-art-35-000-year-old-mammoth-sculpture-found-in-germany-a-489776.html, accessed 01-22-2013).

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Probably the Earliest Extensive Collection of Paintings Circa 32,000 BCE – 30,000 BCE

Fighting rhinos and horses. Detail from one of the most important panels of Chauvet.  It contains twenty animals including rhinoceroses and horses. (Click on image to view larger.)

Detail from a panel at Chauvet showing a pride of lions hunting bioson. (Click on image to view larger.)

Much of the earliest recorded information consists of paleolithic cave paintings and Cro-Magnon mobiliary art, including bones with talley marks. The purposes of this art may never be fully understood.

Until the dating of the "Panel of Hands" in the Cueva de El Castillo in Spain in 2012 the oldest cave paintings confirmed by radiocarbon dating were in the Chauvet Cave discovered in the Ardèche region of France in December 1994 by Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel Deschamps and Christian Hillaire. Paintings in the Chauvet Cave date as early as 30,000 BCE. In 1995 Chauvet, Deschamps and Hillaire published a splendid illustrated monograph on the cave: Grotte Chauvet à Vallon-Pont-d'Arc.  In 1996 this was translated into English as Dawn of Art: The Chauvet Cave. The Oldest Known Paintings in the World. Epilogue by Jean Clottes. Foreword by Paul. G. Bahn. The spectacular color images in this book showed most of the paintings, the bones found on the cave floor, and the hand prints done in red ochre.  Some of the paintings appear to show the animals in motion.

Almost immediately after the discovery of the Chauvet cave the French government sealed it with a bank vault style door, had the cave guarded, and allowed extremely limited access only by the most qualified scientists. In 2010 director Werner Herzog was able to obtain permission to film a documentary in the cave under very restricted conditions. This documentary he released in April 2011 under the title Cave of Forgotten Dreams. It was my pleasure to view this documentary in June 2011. The film also includes interviews with Nicolas Conard regarding the recent discovery of the earliest known mobiliary art in German caves. Notably, Herzog shot his documentary in 3-D, thus enabling the viewer to have a far more accurate sense of the depth of the cave, and of the shapes of the rocks on which the paintings were made, than would have been possible with conventional filming.

Because many cave paintings are deep inside caves, often in inaccessible locations, it is evident that they were painted in darkness lit by small oil lamps or torches.  It has been suggested that the paintings may not have been for public display, but might have been revealed to cognoscenti by elders of a tribal community. 

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Making Materials from Flax Fibers Circa 32,000 BCE – 28,000 BCE

Wild flax fibers discovered in Dzudzuana Cave. (View Larger)

Eliso Kvavadze, Ofer Bar-Yosef and 5 co-authors published "30,000-Year-Old Wild Flax Fibers," Science 11 September 2009, 325, no. 5946, 1359; DOI: 10.1226/Science.1175404.

The abstract read:

"A unique finding of wild flax fibers from a series of Upper Paleolithic layers at Dzudzuana Cave, located in the foothills of the Caucasus, Georgia, indicates that prehistoric hunter-gatherers were making cords for hafting stone tools, weaving baskets, or sewing garments. Radiocarbon dates demonstrate that the cave was inhabited intermittently during several periods dated to 32 to 26 thousand years before the present (kyr B.P.), 23 to 19 kyr B.P., and 13 to 11 kyr B.P. Spun, dyed, and knotted flax fibers are common. Apparently, climatic fluctuations recorded in the cave’s deposits did not affect the growth of the plants because a certain level of humidity was sustained."

The flax fibers were discovered following examination of clay extracted from the cave deposits, leading the archaeologists to speculate that they were the remains of manufactured items which long since disintegrated:

"Some of the fibers were twisted, indicating they were used to make ropes or strings. Others had been dyed. Early humans used the plants in the area to color the fabric or threads made from the flax.

"The items created with these fibers increased early humans chances of survival and mobility in the harsh conditions of this hilly region. The flax fibers could have been used to sew hides together for clothing and shoes, to create the warmth necessary to endure cold weather. They might have also been used to make packs for carrying essentials, which would have increased and eased mobility, offering a great advantage to a hunter-gatherer society

" 'This was a critical invention for early humans. They might have used this fiber to create parts of clothing, ropes, or baskets—for items that were mainly used for domestic activities,' says Bar-Yosef.

" 'We know that this is wild flax that grew in the vicinity of the cave and was exploited intensively or extensively by modern humans.'

"The items created with these fibers increased early humans chances of survival and mobility in the harsh conditions of this hilly region. The flax fibers could have been used to sew hides together for clothing and shoes, to create the warmth necessary to endure cold weather. They might have also been used to make packs for carrying essentials, which would have increased and eased mobility, offering a great advantage to a hunter-gatherer society" (http://www.physorg.com/news171811682.html, accessed 09-12-2009).

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The First Genuine Human Fossil Skeleton Discovered by a Scientist Circa 31,000 BCE

Bones of the "Red Lady of Paviland", who was actually male. (Click on image to view larger.)

Entrance to Paviland Cave. (Click on image to view larger.)

In 1823 British paleontologist the Very Reverend William Buckland published Reliquiae diluvianae; or, Observations on the Organic Remains Contained in Caves, Fissures, and Diluvial Gravel, and on Other Geological Phenomena, Attesting the Action of an Universal DelugeAmong the most notable aspects of this elegant pioneering work on the exploration of so-called "bone caves," was Buckland's report with illustrations, of the discovery of a human skeleton in Paviland Cave (Goat's Hole Cave), one of the limestone caves between Port Eynon and Rhossili, on the Gower Peninsula, south Wales. The skeleton was associated with the bones of extinct animals. Though Buckland initially presumed that the skeleton was male, he later revised his presumption to female because of a bracelet found with the skeleton then thought to be made of ivory, but since recognized to have been made from the bones of a mammoth. Since the skeleton's bones were stained with ochre, the skeleton became known as the "Red Lady of Paviland." This incomplete skeleton Buckland considered “anterior to, or coeval with, the Roman invasion of this country” (p. 92). Because of the prevailing religious/scientific views of his time, Buckland did not recognize its ancient age, and could not accept the idea of human fossils. Much later, the skeleton was recognized as the first genuine human fossil skeleton discovered by a scientist. In 2013 it remained the oldest ceremonial burial of a modern human discovered in Western Europe.

“Decades before the establishment of human antiquity or evolutionary theory, it suggested questions about human origins to science. In fact, Aldhouse-Green has playfully pointed out that our Paleolithic European forebears should be called Pavilandians instead of Cro-Magnons because the Red Lady has priority of nearly forty years over the discoveries made in France” (Sommer, Bones and Ochre. The Curious Afterlife of the Red Lady of Paviland [2007] 2-3).

(This entry was last revised on 04-16-2014.)

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The Earliest Zoomorphic / Anthropomorphic Sculpture Circa 30,000 BCE

The 'Lion Man,' preserved in the Ulmer Museum in Ulm, Germany. (View a full-scale image.)

 The so-called Lionheaded Figurine, a zoomorphic /anthropomorphic sculpture 29.6 cm high, 5.6 cm wide and 5.9 cm thick. carved out of mammoth ivory, was discovered in 1939 in a cave named Stadel-Höhle im Hohlenstein in the Lonetal, Swabian Alps, Germany.

"Due to the beginning of the Second World War, it was forgotten and only rediscovered thirty years later. The first reconstruction revealed a humanoid figurine without head. During 1997 through 1998 additional pieces of the Sculpture were discovered and the head was reassembled and restored."

"The sculpture shares certain similarities with French cave wall paintings, which also show hybrid creatures. The French paintings, however, are several thousand years younger than the German sculpture.

"After this artifact was identified, a similar, but smaller, lion-headed sculpture was found, along with other animal figures, in another cave in the same region of Germany. This leads to the possibility, that the lion-figure played an important role in the mythology of humans of the early Upper Paleolithic"(Wikipedia article on Lion man, accessed 05-14-2009).

The figurine is preserved in the Ulmer Museum in Ulm, Germany, which maintains a website for the figurine

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The Advantages of Orally Transmitted Traditions Circa 30,000 BCE

Dependent as we are on written culture we should not lose sight of the advantages of orally transmitted traditions:

"Some might argue that, without writing, the same beliefs could not have prevailed over such a long period of time, but in reality, oral traditions are far more faithfully passed on than the written word. A written account can be open to multiple interpretations, distortions, and transformations, depending on the time and situation, economic imperatives, or the whims of political or religious leaders. Orally transmitted traditions, in contrast, must be rigorously and accurately passed on in order to survive in all their subtlety, and in the smallest of details. Furthermore, the written word, thought to be the surer and safer means of communication, is not only less reliable but also more permeable to outside aggression than are the more secret codes of an oral system. During the time of the Roman Empire, for instance, the fact that the Celts were still 'prehistoric'—meaning that they hadn't recorded their history, ways, and beliefs— made it much harder for the conquering Romans to devise an appropriate strategy to subjugate them" (Desdemaines-Hugon, Stepping-Stones. A Journey Through the Ice Age Caves of the Dordogne [2010] 75).

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The Earliest Sculpture of a Horse Circa 30,000 BCE – 29,000 BCE

The "Wild Horse" of the Vogelherd Cave is one of oldest carvings made by humans. The carving is in the Museum Schloss Hohentübingen, Tübingen, Germany. (Click on image to view larger.)

Southern entrance (on left) to the big Vogelherd Cave.  Photo: Jochen Duckeck. (Click on image to view larger.)

Discovered in the Vogelherd cave about 1 km northwest of Stetten-ob- Lontal, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, the Wild Horse from Vogelherd, carved from mammoth ivory, is the earliest sculpture of a horse.

The Vogelherd cave is understood to have been a place where humans gathered to eat animals they had hunted. The Wild Horse is part of a collection of ivory carvings that depict mammoths, bison and lions, and a snow leopard found in the cave that date from the Middle Aurignacian period.

"It is exceptionally accurately shaped, perfect in form and remarkably expressive. Due to the curved neck, it is usually thought to represent a stallion with an aggressive or imposing bearing. Only the head is completely preserved. Due to the flaking of external ivory layers, the width has been reduced and the legs have broken off. There are engraved symbols, including cross marks and angular signs, on the back of the neck, as well as on the back and the left chest. Length: 4,8 cm Height: 2,5 cm Width: 0,7 cm Site: Vogelherd, Stetten The original carving is in the Museum Schloss Hohentübingen, Tübingen, Germany" (http://www.ice-age-art.de/anfaenge_der_kunst/vogelherd/pferd.php, accessed 01-22-2013).

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The Oldest Known Ceramic Figurine 29,000 BCE – 25,000 BCE

The Venus of Dolní Věstonice. (View Larger)

The Venus of Dolní Věstonice (Czech: Věstonická Venuše), a ceramic Venus figurine, found at a Paleolithic site in the Moravian basin south of Brno,  is, together with a few others from nearby locations,  the oldest known ceramic in the world, predating the use of fired clay to make pottery. It is 111 millimeters (4.4 inches) tall, and 43 millimeters (1.7 inches) at its widest point, and is made of a clay body fired at a relatively low temperature.

"The palaeolithic settlement of Dolní Věstonice in Moravia, then Czechoslovakia, now Czech Republic has been under systematic archaeological research since 1924, initiated by Karel Absolon. In addition to the Venus figurine, figures of animals - bear, lion, mammoth, horse, fox, rhino and owl - and more than 2,000 balls of burnt clay have been found at Dolní Věstonice.

"The figurine was discovered on July 13, 1925 in a layer of ash, broken into two pieces. Once on display at the Moravian Museum in Brno, it is now protected and only rarely accessible to the public. Last time it was exhibited in the National Museum in Prague from 2006-10-11 till 2007-09-02 as a part of the exhibition Lovci mamutů (The Mammoth Hunters).  Scientists periodically examine the statuette. A tomograph scan in 2004 found a fingerprint of a child estimated at between 7 and 15 years of age, fired into the surface; the child who handled the figurine before it was fired is considered by Králík, Novotný and Oliva (2002) to be an unlikely candidate for its maker" (Wikipedia article on Venus of Dolní Vestonice, accessed 05-14-2009).

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Some of the Earliest Tools for Sewing Garments Circa 28,000 BCE – 21,000 BCE

Photocredit: Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution. (View Larger)

Bone and ivory needles found in  Xiaogushan, Liaoning Province, China, were used to sew warm, closely fitted garments.

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The Ishango Bone, Possibly One of the Oldest Calendars 25,000 BCE – 20,000 BCE

The Ishango Bone, a notched talley stick discovered at Ishango in the Congo (Zaire) in 1960 by Jean de Heinzelin de Braucourt, and now preserved in the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, is one of the oldest known objects that may contain logical or mathematical carvings. It may be simply a talley stick.

Alexander Marschak, an independent scholar, argued that it represents a six-month lunar calendar. In 1970 Marshack published his innovative Notation dans les gravures du Paléolithique Supérieur. He argued that talley marks on certain bones represented a system of proto-writing, and proposed the controversial theory that notches and lines carved on certain Upper Paleolithic bone plaques were notation systems, specifically lunar calendars notating the passage of time. Using microscopic analysis, Marshack showed that seemingly random or meaningless notches on bone were sometimes interpretable as structured series of numbers. Marshack expanded upon these ideas in his book, The Roots of Civilization (1972). If Marshack's interpretation is correct, notched bones such as these may be, in the words of John Eccles, the earliest "conceptual performance of homo sapiens." Alternatively they may be a yet to be understood method of recording information, or something else.

Other supposed "lunar calendars" from about the same date have been discovered on ojbects such as the Isturitz Baton, the Blanchard bone, and possibly in cave paintings in Lascaux and elsewhere.

Eccles, Evolution of the Brain: Creation of the Self (1989) reproducing the Blanchard bone on the cover; discussion on 135-36.

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The Earliest Representation of Spun Thread Circa 25,000 BCE

A modern replica of the Venus of Lespugue. (View Larger)

The Venus of Lespugue, an ivory Venus figurine discovered by René de Saint-Périer in 1922 in the Rideaux cave of Lespuge (Lespugne) in the Haute-Garonne, is approximately 6 inches (150 mm) tall. It is preserved at the Musée de l'Homme, Paris.

"Of all the steatopygous Venus figurines discovered from the upper Paleolithic, the Venus of Lespugue, if the reconstruction is sound, appears to display the most exaggerated female secondary sexual characteristics, especially the extremely large, pendulous breasts.

"According to textile expert Elizabeth Wayland Barber, the statue displays the earliest representation found of spun thread, as the carving shows a skirt hanging from below the hips, made of twisted fibers, frayed at the end" (Wikipedia article on Venus of Lespugue, accessed 06-04-2014). 

Pétillon, Historique des fouilles de R. de Saint-Périer dans les sites paléolithiques des gorges de la Save (Lespugue, Haute-Garonne). Préhistoire du Sud-Ouest, 20 (2012) no. 2, 213-219.

Barber, Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times (1994) 44.

(This entry was last revised on 06-04-2014.)

 

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The Venus of Willendorf Circa 24,000 BCE – 22,000 BCE

The Venus of Willendorf. (View Larger)

The Venus of Willendorf, an 11.1 cm (4 3/8 inches) high statuette of a female figure, was discovered in 1908 by archaeologist Josef Szombathy at a paleolithic site near Willendorf, a village in Lower Austria near the city of Krems. It is preserved in the Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna.

For a long time this sculpture, carved from an oolitic limestone not local to its area, and tinted with red ochre, was thought to be the earliest sculpture of a human.

Since the figure's discovery and naming, several similar statuettes and other forms of art have been discovered, including earlier examples. They are collectively referred to as Venus figurines, although they pre-date the mythological figure of Venus by thousands of years. The purposes of these carvings have been subject to much speculation.

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The Earliest Portrait 24,000 BCE

The oldest known portrait of a woman, sculpted from mammoth ivory during the last ice age around 26,000 years ago.  Photograph: Graeme Robertson for The Guardian. (Click on image to view larger.)

Smaller than a human thumb, an image of a woman's head delicately carved in mammoth ivory about 24,000 BCE is considered the earliest portrait of an individual. The portrait, found found in the Czech Republic at Dolní Věstonice, Moravia, shows a woman with her hair drawn up on the top of her head, with a fringe across her brow. Or possibly the woman is wearing a fur hat. Though earlier images of people survive, this is viewed as the first actual portrait of an individual because of the distinctiveness of the features depicted. When the portrait was exhibited at the British Museum in 2013 the curator Jill Cook said,

"The reason we say it is a portrait is because she has absolutely individual characteristics. She has one beautifully engraved eye; on the other, the lid comes over and there's just a slit. Perhaps she had a stroke, or a palsy, or was injured in some way. In any case, she had a dodgy eye. And she has a little dimple in her chin: this is an image of a real, living woman" (http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/jan/24/ice-age-art-british-museum, accessed 09-02-2013).

The portrait is preserved in the Anthropos Institute at the Moravian Museum.

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One of the Earliest Known Realistic Representations of a Human Face Circa 23,000 BCE

The Venus of Brassempouy. (View Larger)

The Venus of Brassempouy or La Dame de Brassempouy,  a fragmentary ivory figurine from the Upper Palaeolithic, Gravettian industry, discovered in the Grotte du Pape at Brassempouy, France in 1892, by Édouard Piette, is one of the earliest known realistic representations of a human face. 

"She is 3.65 cm high, 2.2 cm deep and 1.9 cm wide. Her face is triangular and seems tranquil. While forehead, nose and brows are carved in relief, the mouth is absent. A vertical crack on the right side of the face is linked to the internal structure of the ivory. On the head is a checkerboard-like pattern formed by two series of shallow incisions at right angles to each other; it has been interpreted as a wig, a hood, or simply a representation of hair.

"Even though the head was discovered so early in the development of modern archaeology that its context could not be studied with all the attention it would have deserved, there is no doubt that the Venus of Brassempouy belonged to an Upper Palaeolithic material culture, the Gravettian (29,000–22,000 BP), more precisely the Middle Gravettian, with "Noailles" burins circa 26,000 to 24,000 BP.

"She is more or less contemporary with the other Palaeolithic Venus figurines, such as those of Lespugue, Dolní Věstonice, Willendorf, etc. Nonetheless, she is distinguished among the group by the realistic character of the representation" (Wikipedia article on Venus of Brassempouy, accessed 05-14-2009).

The Venus of Brassempouy is preserved in the Musée d'Archéologie nationale, Saint-Germain-En-Laye.

Randall White, "The women of Brassempouy: A century of research and interpretation," Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 13.4, December 2006:251ff.

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Perhaps the Oldest Surviving Architecture Circa 23,000 BCE – 12,000 BCE

Artist rendition of dwelling in Mezhirich, Poland, made of mammoth bones.  Source: Dolní Věstonice Museum. (Click on image to view larger.)

Inside protective structure in Mezhirich, Poland showing remnants of one of the huts made of mammoth bones. Source: Teesla. (Click on image to view larger.)

 

 

Huts built from mammoth bones found along the Dniepr river valley of Ukraine, at locations near Chernihiv, in Moravia, Czech Republic, and in southern Poland, that date between 23,000 BCE and 12,000 BCE, may be the earliest structures built by prehistoric man, and thus the earliest examples of architecture. Some of the most notable of these mammoth bone huts were found in Mezhyrich (Межиріч, Mezhirich), a village in central Ukraine located in the Kaniv Raion (district) of the Cherkasy Oblast, approximately 22 km from the region's administrative center, Kaniv, near the point where the Rosava River flows into the Ros'. Since 1966 at least four collapsed mammoth bone structures have been discovered in Mezhirich.

"They are composed of several hundred bones and tusks arranged in a rough circle, between 6 and 10 m (20 and 33 ft) in diameter. A hearth typically lies near the centre of the former dwelling, and stone tools and other debris are scattered within and outside the structure. Large pits filled with stone tools, bone fragements and ash have beenf ound near the houses.

"Considerable effort must have been required to assemble these structures. Even in a dry state, large mammoth bones weigh hundreds of pounds. It has been suggested that the bones and tusks were recovered from hunting episodes in which entire herds of adult mammoth and their young were slaughtered. A more likely explanation is that they were gathered from natural accumulations of bones perhaps at the mouths of streams and gullies near the sites. The primary purpose of the mammoth-bone dwellings which were presumably covered with animal skins, was probably shelter from extreme cold and high winds. Some archaeologists, impressed with the size and appearance of the structures, have argued that they also possess religious or social significance. The have been described as the earliest examples of 'monumental architecture' as as evidence of increased social complexity and status differentiation during the final phase of the Ice Age" (Paul G. Bahn (ed) 100 Great Archaeological Discoveries [1995] 54-55).

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The Oldest Fish Hooks and Evidence of Paleolithic Offshore Fishing Circa 21,000 BCE – 16,000 BCE

Fish hooks made of shell found in the Jerimalai Cave in East Timor. (Click on image to view larger.)

Excavation site in Jerimalai Cave in East Timor. (Click on image to view larger.)

Jerimalai Cave in East Timor contains the oldest evidence of occupation by modern humans on the islands that were the stepping stones from South-East Asia to Australia. In 2011 Sue O'Connor and colleagues from the Australian National University in Canberra found two broken fish hooks made from shells at Jerimalai cave. The hooks, which dated between 21,000 and 16,000 BCE are the earliest fish hooks known.

"The team also found more than 38,000 fish bones at the site, dating the oldest back to 42,000 years ago. Some were from inshore species, but almost half were from 'pelagic species' — fish that dwell in the open ocean, providing the oldest known evidence of humans fishing far from shore. The most commonly found pelagic species at the site were Tuna, but there was also evidence of humans eating sharks and rays, among others.

“ 'That these types of fish were being routinely caught 40,000 years ago is extraordinary,' says O'Connor. 'It requires complex technology and shows that early modern humans in island South East Asia had amazingly advanced maritime skills.' "

"Far older fish bones have been found at sites in southern Africa – those at the Blombos Cave in South Africa, for example, date from 140,000–50,000 years ago – but they have generally been from inshore species whose capture would require less complex technology2. A small number of tuna vertebrae have been found, but these can be attributed to scavenging of fish washed up on beaches, says Richard Klein, an archaeologist at Stanford University in California, who has worked extensively in the region. The oldest known fishing tackle from the vicinity dates from around 12,000 years ago, but it includes only bone gorges (straight hooks) and net sinkers, probably used exclusively inshore, he adds" (http://www.nature.com/news/archaeologists-land-world-s-oldest-fish-hook-1.9461#b1, accessed 01-18-2013).

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Discoveries in Brazil Could Predate the Arrival of the Clovis People in the Americas Circa 20,000 BCE

On March 27, 2014 Simon Romero, Brazil bureau chief of The New York Times, reported that researchers in Brazil unearthed stone tools which they believed offered proof that humans reached what is now northeast Brazil as early as 22,000 years ago (circa 20,000 BCE). These finds, excavated in the Serra da Capivara National Park (Parque Nacional Serra da Capivara), and reported in the March 4 issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science by Christelle Lahaye of the University of Brodeaux 3 and Eric Boëda of the University of Paris X, challenged the longstanding view that the Clovis people were the first settlers of the Americas.

"Among other South American locations proposed as human settlements well before North America’s Clovis culture, the most controversial is Brazil’s Pedra Furada rock-shelter. There, archaeologists unearthed burned wood and sharp-edged stones and dated them to more than 50,000 years ago. Pedra Furada’s excavators regard the finds as evidence of ancient human hearths and stone tools. Critics, and especially many Clovis investigators, say the Brazilian discoveries could have resulted from natural fires and rock slides.

"The new discovery came at Toca da Tira Peia rock-shelter, which is in the same national park as Pedra Furada. It also has drawn skeptics. The site’s location at the base of a steep cliff raises the possibility that crude, sharp-edged stones resulted from falling rocks, not human handiwork, says archaeologist Gary Haynes of the University of Nevada, Reno. Another possibility is that capuchins or other monkeys produced the tools, says archaeologist Stuart Fiedel of Louis Berger Group, an environmental consulting firm in Richmond, Va.

"The age of Toca da Tira Peia artifacts has also drawn debate. Dating the artifacts hinges on calculations of how long ago objects were buried by soil. Various environmental conditions, including fluctuations in soil moisture, could have distorted these age estimates. . . ." (https://www.sciencenews.org/article/disputed-finds-put-humans-south-america-22000-years-ago, accessed 03-29-2014).

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Cylcons Circa 18,000 BCE

"There are no certain ways to date individual cylcons. The oldest cylcon/message stone found in a dateable archaeological context is about 20,000 years old. The simple line motifs of the oldest cylcons represent the earliest art of the Aborigines, from a very early period of occupation. In Australian nomenclature this is the colonizing period, or early Stone Age, ca. 50,000/40,000-3,000 BC. With the earliest rock-carvings and paintings, the cylcons represent the oldest form of communication and art; and they represent the oldest religion still observed. Only 2 Aborigines have been able to communicate their name of the cylcons: Yurda, and Wommagnaragnara (Heart of the snake), respectively. Other uses as tallies are possible, such as counting of dead people, warriors, emus, measures of nardo seeds, or mapping purposes counting day-marches in various directions. Later the use could also change to other magic rituals, some involving the chipping off smaller flakes, and the practical use for pounding and crushing. Much more research is needed before the cylcons' real age and significance can be properly understood and appreciated.

"The term cylcon is derived from the title of R. Ethridge's publication: The Cylindro-conical and Stone Implements of Western New South Wales and their significance. Ethnological Series No. 2, Memoirs of the Geological Survey of New South Wales, 1916:1-41" (http://www.schoyencollection.org/religionsLiving.html, accessed 03-06-2009)

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The Oldest Known Pottery Circa 18,000 BCE

Two of the 20,000 year-old pottery fragments found in the Xianrendong Cave in China.  Photo by AFP/Science/AAAS. (Click on image to view larger.)

Fragments of pottery 20,000 years old found in Xianrendong Cave in Jiangxi Province, southern China, in 2012 are the oldest known pottery. Archaeological studies of the cave indicate that it was inhabited by mobile foragers who hunted and gathered during the Last Glacial Maximum. The vessels, which may have been concave, were probably used for cooking food. The site in which the pottery fragments were found is one of the earliest kitchens.

Xiaohong Wu, Chi Zhang, Paul Goldberg, David Cohen, Yan Pan, Trina Arpin, Ofer Bar-Yosef, "Early Pottery at 20,000 Years Ago in Xianrendong Cave, China," Science 29, June 2012, 1696-1700.  

Images of the pottery were published in The New York Times on June 28, 2012.

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The Earliest Surviving Pottery From Japan Circa 16,000 BCE

Photocredit: Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution. (View Larger)

Early humans may have made bags from skin long ago. By around 24,000 BCE they were weaving plant fibers to make cords and perhaps baskets. Some of the oldest known pottery, from Japan’s Jomon culture, Lake Anenuma, Honshu, Japan, are about 18,000 years old.

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The "Sistine Chapel" of the Upper Paleolithic Circa 15,300 BCE

Painting of a dun horse from Lascaux Cave. (Click on image to view larger.)

On September 12, 1940 four teenagers, Marcel Ravidat, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel, and Simon Coencas—together with Marcel's dog Robot, discovered the Lascaux cave complex near the village of Montignac in Dordogne, France. A few days later the boys told M. Laval, a retired schoolmaster, and Maurice Thaon, a young acquaintance of Abbé Henri Breuil, of their discovery. Thaon made a few preliminary sketches of the cave art and brought them to Breuil, the leading authority on paleolithic or cave art.

Breuil arrived at Lascaux on September 21 and spent three days exploring the caves. In "La grotte de Lascaux. Rapport", published in the Bulletin de la Société historique et archéologique du Périgord later in 1940 Breuil announced the discovery and provided the first description of the Lascaux cave paintings. Illuatrations in the brief seven-page paper included reproductions of some of Thaon’s sketches.

Probably because of war publication of the dramatic discoveries at Lascaux proceeded slowly. Breuil published the first photographically illustrated description of the Lascaux cave paintings in a paper entitled "La cueva de Lascaux" in the Spanish journal Atlantis: Actas y memorias de la Sociedad española de antropologia, etnografia y prehistoria 16 (1941) 349-355, plates XXVI-XXXIX. The article reproduced thirteen photographs of the paintings in black and white.

Lascaux Cave Paintings - Virtual Tour from Vimeo Videos on Vimeo.

"The cave contains nearly 2,000 figures, which can be grouped into three main categories: animals, human figures and abstract signs. The paintings contain no images of the surrounding landscape or the vegetation of the time. Most of the major images have been painted onto the walls using mineral pigments, although some designs have also been incised into the stone. Many images are too faint to discern, and others have deteriorated entirely.

"Over 900 can be identified as animals, and 605 of these have been precisely identified. Out of these images, there are 364 paintings of equines as well as 90 paintings of stags. Also represented are cattle and bison, each representing 4 to 5% of the images. A smattering of other images include seven felines, a bird, a bear, a rhinoceros, and a human. There are no images of reindeer, even though that was the principal source of food for the artists. Geometric images have also been found on the walls.

"The most famous section of the cave is The Great Hall of the Bulls where bulls, equines, and stags are depicted. The four black bulls, or aurochs, are the dominant figures among the 36 animals represented here. One of the bulls is 17 feet (5.2 m) long, the largest animal discovered so far in cave art. Additionally, the bulls appear to be in motion. A painting referred to as "The Crossed Bison", found in the chamber called the Nave, is often submitted as an example of the skill of the Paleolithic cave painters. The crossed hind legs create the illusion that one bison is closer to us than the other. This visual depth in the scene demonstrates a primitive form of perspective which was particularly advanced for the time" (Wikipedia article on Lascaux, accessed 08-21-2013).

Remarkably, near the village of Eyzies-de-Tayac Sireuil there are 37 decorated caves and shelters, as well as an even greater number of habitation sites from the Upper Paleolithic, located in the open, in a rock shelter, or at the entrance to one of the karst cavities. This is the highest concentration in western Europe. Lascaux is located some distance from the major concentrations of decorated caves and inhabited sites, most of which were discovered further downstream.

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The Venus Impudique: the First Discovery of a Venus Figurine Circa 14,000 BCE

In 1864 the Marquis Paul de Vibraye discovered the Venus impudique or Immodest Venus at Laugerie Basse, France. This was the first discovery of a Venus figurine in France, and probably the first anywhere. Eight centimeters in height, the figurine was carved from ivory, with a flat stomach and could be the figure of a young girl. The head of the figurine was lost.

Discovery of the Venus impudique was among the earliest discoveries of paleolithic mobiliary art and coincided with the first publication on the subject by Edouard Lartet and Henry Christie, also in 1864.

In naming the figurine, the Marquis playfully reversed the appellation Venus pudica ("modest Venus") used to describe a statue type of the Classical Venus which often shows the goddess attempting to conceal her breasts and pubic area from view. The inference the Marquis made was that this prehistoric Venus makes no attempt to hide her sexuality. When viewed in profile, the statuette is comparable to certain cave drawings.

The figurine is preserved in the Musée de l'homme, Paris

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Hunter-Gathers Were Living At Buttermilk Creek, Texas, as Early as 15,000 Years Ago Circa 13,500 BCE – 11,200

On March 25, 2011 archaeologist Michael R. Waters, director of the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M University, and colleagues reported that excavations at the Buttermilk Creek Complex at the Debra L. Friedkin Paleo-Indian archaeological site in present day Salado, Texas, about 40 miles northwest of Austin, showed that hunter-gatherers were living at the Buttermilk Creek site and making projectile points, blades, choppers and other tools from local chert for a long time, possibly as early as 15,500 years ago (13,500 BCE) More than 50 well-formed artifacts as well as hundreds of flakes and fragments of chipping debris were embedded in thick clay sediments immediately beneath typical Clovis material. These discoveries predated the arrival of the Clovis people which were thought to have arrived from Asia circa 13,000 years ago (11,000 BCE). 

Waters, Michael R. et al, "The Buttermilk Creek Complex and the Origins of Clovis at the Debra L. Friedkin Site, Texas," Science 331, no. 6024 (March 25, 2011) 1599-1603.

"Compelling archaeological evidence of an occupation older than Clovis (~12.8 to 13.1 thousand years ago) in North America is present at only a few sites, and the stone tool assemblages from these sites are small and varied. The Debra L. Friedkin site, Texas, contains an assemblage of 15,528 artifacts that define the Buttermilk Creek Complex, which stratigraphically underlies a Clovis assemblage and dates between ~13.2 and 15.5 thousand years ago. The Buttermilk Creek Complex confirms the emerging view that people occupied the Americas before Clovis and provides a large artifact assemblage to explore Clovis origins" (Abstract).

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North America's Earliest Rock Art Circa 12,800 BCE – 8,500 BCE

Winnemucca Lake petroglyphs. (Click on image to view larger.)

In August 2013 researcher Larry Benson of the University of Colorado at Boulder published reports of radiocarbon tests of petroglyphs on the west side of Nevada's dried-up Winnemucca Lake that indicating that the petroglyphs are between 14,800 and 10,500 years old, making them the earliest rock art known in North America.  The petroglyphs consist of large, deeply carved grooves and dots forming complex designs on several large limestone boulders. The designs include a series of vertical, chain-like symbols and a number of smaller pits deeply incised with a type of hard rock scraper.

Benson LV et al. 2013, "Dating North America’s oldest petroglyphs, Winnemucca Lake subbasin, Nevada," Journal of Archaeological Science 40, no. 12, pp. 4466–4476; doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2013.06.022

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"The Sorcerer" Circa 12,000 BCE

'The Sorcerer' is one name for this cryptic painting found in the Trois Frères in France by Henri Breuil. Photocredit: Encyclopaedia Britannica(View Larger)

The Sorcerer, an enigmatic therianthrope cave drawing, is thought to have been created about 12000 BCE. It was discovered in the cavern known as "The Sanctuary" in the Trois-Frères cave in Montesquieu-Avantès, Ariège, France. The cave was discovered by the three sons of comte Henri Bégouën in 1912-1914. Exploration of the cave was interrupted by World War I, resuming in 1918. Count Bégouën and Henri Breuil published the image of "The Sorcerer" for the first time in 1920: H. Bégouën and H. Breuil, "Un dessin relevé dans la grotte des Trois Frères à Montesquieu-Avantès (Ariège)," C. r. Ac. Inscr. (1920) p. 45, 303.

The image, which Breuil made famous, has been variously interpreted as some kind of great spirit or master of animals, or a shaman performing a ritual to ensure good hunting. Whatever its original meaning to prehistoric people, it is generally agreed that this was a cult object of great significance to the people who used the cave.

The cave contained so many images, many of them intricately intertwined, that their study took decades. In Four Hundred Centuries of Cave Art, Transl. Mary E. Boyle (1952) Breuil indicated that Max Bégouën first saw and photographed the image. Breuil wrote:

"First of all, the 'God' first called the 'Sorcerer' by Count Bégouën and I, the only figure painted in black of all those engravings in the Sanctuary, four metres above the floor in an apparently inaccessible position, only to be reached by a secret corridor climbing upwards in a spiral. Evidently, he presides over all the animals, collected there in incredible numbers and often in a terribly tangled mass. He is 75 cms high and 50 cms wide, he is entirely engraved but the painting is unequally distributed; on the head there are only a few traces, on the eyes, nose, forehead and the right ear. This head is full face with round eyes with pupils, between the eyes runs a line for the nose, ending in a little arch. The pricked ears are those of a Stag. From a blacked painted band across the forehead rise two big thick antlers with no frontal tines but with a single short tine, fairly high above the base of each branch, bending left. This figure has no mouth, but a very long beard cut in lines and falling on the chest. The fore-arms, which are raised and joined horizontally, end in two hands close together, the short fingers outstretched; they are colourless and almost invisible. A wide black band outlines the whole body, growing narrower at the lumbar region, and spread out round the legs which are bent. A spot marks the left knee-joint. The feet and big toes are rather carefully made and show a movement similar to steps in a 'Cakewalk' dance. The male sex, emphasized but not erect, pointing backwards but well developed, is inserted under the bushy tail of a Wolf or Horse, with a little tuft at the end. Such is the Magdalenian figure considered to be the most important in the cavern and the Spirit controlling the multiplication of game and hunting expeditions" (Breuil, op. cit., 176). 

It may be impossible to put ourselves in the mindset of prehistoric man without projecting our worldview. One way is to study the rituals of present stone-age peoples such as Aborigines (Indigenous Australians), who also create rock paintings. A more recent study, devoid of Breuil's religious bias, that reviews prior or alternative theories and suggests that cave images were derived from trance and magic in shamamistic ritual is the beautifully illustrated book by Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams, The Shamans of Prehistory. Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves. Text by Jean Clottes, translated from the French by Sophie Hawkes (1996).

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More than 5000 Flint Tools Are Found in Biggar, Scotland Circa 12,000 BCE

On April 9, 2014 Culture254.org.uk reported that more than 5000 flint artefacts were excavated from a field at Howburn Farm, near Biggar in South Lanarkshire, Scotland, between 2005 and 2009. These finds were previously reported in Current Archaeology on June 25, 2010. The tools, which date from approximately 12,000 BCE, represent the earliest evidence of human occupation in Scotland. They were described as “strikingly similar” to tools produced in continental Europe during the same period.

“ 'These tools represent a real connection with archaeological finds in north-west Germany, southern Denmark and north-west Holland - a connection not seen elsewhere in Britain at this time,' says Alan Saville, a Senior Curator in Earliest Prehistory at the National Museums of Scotland who is also the President of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and a specialist in the study of flaked flint and stone tools.

“This discovery is both intriguing and revolutionises our ideas about where humans came from in this very early period.

“In southern Britain, early links are with northern France and Belgium. Howburn is just one chance discovery and further such discoveries will no doubt emerge.”

"The climate had improved when the game hunters arrived, but the return of glacial weather is thought to have driven humans away until around 1,000 years later. A now-destroyed cave in Argyll had previously provided the earliest evidence of humans in Scotland.

"Detailing the findings, which will be fully published in a Historic Scotland report next year, Cabinet Secretary for Culture Fiona Hyslop also announced more than £1.4 million in funding for dozens of archaeological projects across Scotland during the next year" (http://www.culture24.org.uk/history-and-heritage/archaeology/megaliths-and-prehistoric-archaeology/art475720, accessed 04-10-2014).

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Pre-Historic Art Created by Children at the Cave of a Hundred Mammoths, Rouffignac Circa 11,000 BCE

Flutings at Rouffignac.  Both children and adults created cave art known as finger flutings in the French caverns of Rouffignac roughly 13,000 years ago. Credit: Jessica Cooney / Leslie van Gelder. (Click on image to view larger.)

In 2006 Kevin Sharpe and Leslie van Gelder published "Evidence for Cave Marking by Paleolithic Children," Antiquity  (2006)  80:310, 937-947.  In this paper they presented evidence that the numerous finger flutings in Chamber A1 of Rouffignac Cave within the French commune of Rouffignac-Saint-Cernin-de-Reilhac in the Dordogne département were made by very young children, 2-5 years old.

"A wall in Gargas Cave, France, shows a baby’s hand held by that of an adult while color is blown over them. Footprints of youngsters have been immortalized into the floors of Pech Merle, Chauvet, Tuc d’Audoubert, and Niaux caves. All these sites also contain prehistoric art. Children were present in the caves, but did they actually produce art or at least deliberately create any of the markings (the corpus of which is called ‘art’ within quotation marks, to recognize the unanswered question as to whether it should count as art)? Whatever the minor impressions of Paleolithic children in caves, this image is often forgotten in favour of the popular image from the Charles R. Knight type of picture that shows the proverbial cave man painting beautiful images of animals – with women and children only looking on. 

"Some specialists of prehistoric parietal ‘art’ believe that children did participate in its creation. Bednarik argues that juveniles were responsible for some of the finger flutings (the lines that human fingers leave when drawn over a soft surface) made in caves in southern Australia at least 30,000 years ago (Bednarik 1986a; 1986b; 1987-88; 1990). (Paleolithic flutings occur in caves through southern Australia, New Guinea, and southwestern Europe.) As will be pointed out below, however, the case Bednarik makes is more suggestive than definitive, relying on a methodology that requires further refinement with forensics.  

"This report introduces a reliable methodology with which to ascertain children’s authorship of flutings, and then provides the results of a study using this. Unlike Bednarik’s, and Sharpe and Van Gelder’s (2004) earlier publications on the subject, definitive evidence is presented that children did indeed create prehistoric ‘art,’ in particular that young children fluted in Rouffignac Cave in the Dordogne, France. This conclusion leads to further questions and insight into the activities carried on in the fluted chamber. . . .

"Conclusions

"Young children aged 2-5 made many of the flutings in the fluted subchamber of Chamber A1 in Rouffignac Cave. This is the first demonstrated case of young children creating Paleolithic parietal ‘art.’  

"Given that this can be ascertained with a high degree of probability based on the physical evidence of the flutings, further matters present themselves for research and other informtion may be learned about the fluters. For instance, an aspect of Chamber A1 to notice is the height of the ceiling above the floor. The ceiling flutings are now in places just reachable by a man of 1.8 m. stretching up. It is unreasonable to think that young children marked unaided at such heights, yet the fluting size in some such places is small. Was the height of the ceiling above the floor at the time of fluting much the same as now? If so, or if the height were greater than now, the children would have had to have been held up to flute. In what direction did the children face when held aloft? Were the children acting as ‘paint brushes’ for those holding them up? Were the people holding up the children moving in some prescribed manner, such as in a dance? If so, could their feet and body movements be reconstructed from the flutings?  

"Why did those holding up the children to flute do this? The youngsters could have fluted where they could reach and the holders (if older people) could have marked, not only these sections, but also sections where the youngsters could not reach. Here, however, they raised the children up to flute (and in some alcoves added their own flutings). Further, the low sections of the ceilings that young children could comfortably flute by themselves usually show few or no flutings. //While the archaeologist ought not to approach flutings with strident ideas as to what they mean, the flutings’ illusive meaning should not deter an examination of them. They can offer a rich source of information about the behaviors of the fluters – flutings tell about the fingers and hands that made them and these tell about the people – and the archaeologist ought to look in depth at the flutings as physical objects. Only then can questions be posed that the lines themselves might answer or that experimentation might elucidate. Such investigations logically come before subjective-interpretative and meaning-seeking approaches to flutings and may help support or disprove the various hypotheses as to their connotation or lay a solid foundation for seeking meaning.  

"Similar methodologies are being applied to other flutings in Rouffignac and elsewhere, relating information not only about the ages of the fluters, but also about such data as the fluters’ genders and the number of individuals involved. At least three other forms of flutings besides the Mirian Form exist in Rouffignac (Sharpe and Van Gelder To Appear) and work continues on them in Rouffignac and Gargas caves, to see if it is possible to elucidate further the behaviors and individuals behind their manufacture" (http://www.ksharpe.com/word/AR86.htm, accessed 12-17-2011).

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The Swimming Reindeer Circa 11,000 BCE

Ice age carving of two reindeer swimming.  It is carved from the tip of a mammoth tusk and shows a female reindeer swimming ahead of a male reindeer. (Click in image to view larger.)

In 1866 the Swimming Reindeer was found in two pieces by a French engineer, Peccadeu de l'Isle,  at a rock sheltter at Monastruc near Bruniquel,  in the Midi-Pyrénées region of southern France. It was carved from the tip of a mammoth tusk. In the early 20th century the Abbé Henri Breuil realized that the two pieces fit together to form a single sculpture of two reindeer swimming nose to tail.

"The sculpture shows a female reindeer closely followed by a larger male reindeer. The larger male is indicated by his size, antlers and genitals, whilst the female has her teats modelled. The reindeer are thought to be swimming in illustration of the migration of deer that would have taken place each autumn. It is known that it would be autumn as both reindeer are shown with antlers, and only during autumn do both male and female reindeer have antlers. At this time of year reindeer would be much easier to hunt, and the meat, skin and antlers would be at their best. Each of the reindeer has been marked with a burin to show different colouring and texture in the deer's coat. Oddly there are ten deeper cuts on each side of the back of the leading female reindeer. These may have been intended to indicate coloured markings, but their purpose is unclear. Further studies of Ice Age artifacts gives the hypothesis that the marks may have been made to keep track of how many animals, in this case reindeer, the owner of the carving killed during the hunt. It is thought that women would gather the animals in a rushed group setting. Cleaning and preparing it could not only be hectic but lead to quarrels about who gets what and how much. It could also mean that the owner made it through their 10th season of hunting during the migration, or any other counting related tracking system" (Wikipedia article on Swimming Reindeer, accessed 01-22-2013).

The Swimming Reindeer is preserved in the British Museum.

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The Mammoth Spear Thrower Circa 10,500 BCE

Spear thrower carved as a mammoth.  Source: The British Museum. (Click on image to view larger.)

Carved from a Reindeer antler, the Mammoth Spear Thrower was discovered at the rockshelter of Monastruc, Tarn-et Garonne near Bruniquel, in the Midi-Pyrénées region of southern France about 1866. 

"Spear throwers came into use about 18,000 years ago in western Europe. They consist of a straight handle with a hook at one end. The bottom of the spear fits against the hook and the spear shaft and spear thrower handle are held together with the hook end by the shoulder. Launching the spear in this way sends it with more force and speed and across a longer distance than if it was simply thrown by hand.  

"The hook ends of spear throwers are frequently decorated with an animal. This example from Montastruc shows a mammoth. It is the only known example which has a hole for an eye (which probably held an insert of bone or stone). The hook is also unusual because it is an ancient repair. The original hook carved from the antler broke off and was mended by cutting a slot on the back and inserting a bone or antler replacement. The mammoth's tusks appear on each side of the handle, most of which was broken off in ancient times." 

The Mammoth Speer Thrower is preserved in the Christie Collection in the British Museum.

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Perhaps the Oldest Map in the World 10,000 BCE

Map-making appears to predate written language. What may be the oldest map in the world, discovered in Ukraine in 1966, may date from about 10,000 BCE. Inscribed on a mammoth tusk, the map was found in Mezhirich, Ukraine. It has been interpreted to show dwellings along a river.

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The Holocene Interglacial Period Begins Circa 10,000 BCE

The Holocene interglacial, a geological interval of warmer global average temperature that separates glacial periods within an ice age, began circa 10,000 BCE.

"Human civilization, in its most widely used definition, dates entirely within the Holocene. The word anthropocene is sometimes used to describe the time period from when humans have had a significant impact on the Earth's climate and ecosystems to the present" (Wikipedia article on Holocene, accessed 07-10-2010).

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The Earliest Surviving Human-Made Place of Worship Circa 9,500 BCE

The Göbekli Tepe, Turkist for 'Potbelly Hill,' is the oldest discovered structure for religious worship. (View Larger)

Göbekli Tepe (Turkish for "Potbelly Hill"), a hilltop sanctuary erected on the highest point of an elongated mountain ridge some 15 km northeast of the town of Şanlıurfa (formerly Urfa / Edessa) in southeastern Turkey, is the earliest surviving human-made place of worship, and the earliest surviving religious site in general. It was discovered in 1964; excavations began in 1994.

The site was erected by hunter-gatherers in the 10th millennium BCE, before the advent of the transition from nomadic to permanent year-round settlement. Together with Nevalı Çori, a site dating from the ninth or tenth millenium BCE, but which was inundated by the dammed waters of the Euphrates, Göbekli Tepe has revolutionized understanding of the Eurasian Neolithic.

"Göbekli Tepe is regarded as an archaeological discovery of the greatest importance since it profoundly changes our understanding of a crucial stage in the development of human societies. It seems that the erection of monumental complexes was within the capacities of hunter-gatherers and not only of sedentary farming communities as had been previously assumed. In other words, as excavator Klaus Schmidt puts it: 'First came the temple, then the city.' This revolutionary hypothesis will have to be supported or modified by future research" (Wikipedia article on Göbekli Tepe, accessed 05-18-2011).

Spectacular renderings and photographs of the site are in Mann, "Göbekli Tepe," National Geographic 219, no. 6, 39-59.

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Food Storage Preceded Plant Domestication in the Jordan Valley Circa 9,300 BCE – 9,175 BCE

In July 2009 archaeologists Ian Kuijt and Bill Finlayson reported that recent excavations at the PPNA (Pre-Pottery Neolithic A) site at Dhra′ near the Dead Sea in Jordan provided strong evidence for sophisticated, purpose-built granaries in a predomestication context 9300-9175 BCE. This evidence supported arguments for the storage and cultivation of wild cereals before the domestication of plants.

"Designed with suspended floors for air circulation and protection from rodents, they are located between residential structures that contain plant-processing instillations. The granaries represent a critical evolutionary shift in the relationship between people and plant foods, which precedes the emergence of domestication and large-scale sedentary communities by at least 1,000 years....

"People in the PPNA were the first in the world to develop systematic large-scale food storage. In the Early Natufian period (≈15,000/14,500–12,800 cal B.P.), people used a remarkably wide range of wild plants and animals, lived in relatively large well-made semisubterranean buildings for much of the year, and undoubtedly had a detailed knowledge of the seasonality and availability of these resources. Certainly the apparent increased degree of sedentism in the Early Natufian period suggests that people were able to reduce seasonal food risks to the point where they could live in the same areas for 1 or more seasons of the year. There is, however, surprisingly little direct evidence for food storage. The strongest is from ′Ain Mallaha, where pits are often termed silos although their specific function is unclear. There is indirect evidence in the Natufian for plant food processing, including the presence of sickles, mortars, and pestles. Although Natufian people probably engaged in some form of low-level food storage, they also situated their settlements where they were able to use high-yield food resources from multiple natural ecotones in different seasons. With the onset of the climatic downturn of the Younger Dryas, people in the Late Natufian period (≈12,800–11,500 cal B.P.) returned to more mobile economic and subsistence strategies. Late Natufian people abandoned earlier settlements, adopted new systems seasonal residential movement, and rarely built residential structures that required significant investment of energy" (Kuijt & Finlayson,"Evidence for food storage and predomestication granaries 11,000 years ago in the Jordan Valley," Proceedings National Academy of Sciences," Published online before print June 22, 2009, doi:10.1073/pnas.0812764106). 

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The Eight Founding Crops of Domesticated Agriculture Circa 9,000 BCE – 8,000 BCE

Emmer wheat, one of the first domesticated crops. (View Larger)

Between 9000 and 8000 BCE the eight so-called founder crops of domesticated agriculture were domesticated by early Holocene (Pre-Pottery Neolithic A and Pre-Pottery Neolithic B) farming communities in the Fertile Crescent region of the Middle East, incorporating Ancient Egypt, the Levant, and Mesopotamia. The founder crops included flax, three cereals and four pulses (legumes). Together they formed the basis of systematic agriculture in the Middle East, North Africa, India, Persia and (later) Europe. 

First emmer wheat and einkorn wheat were domesticated, then hulled barley, peas, lentils, bitter vetch (an ancient grain legume crop), chick peas and flax. These eight crops occur more or less simultaneously on Pre-Pottery Neolithic B sites in the Levant, although the consensus is that wheat was the first to be sown and harvested on a significant scale.

(This entry was last revised on 04-30-2014.)

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The Ain Sakhri Lovers Figurine Circa 9,000 BCE

Oldest known representation of two people engaged in sexual intercourse. (Click on image to view larger.)

Found in one of the Ain Sakhri caves near Bethlehem, and preserved in the British Museum, the Ain Sakri lovers figurine, carved from a calcite cobble, is the oldest known representation of two people engaged in sexual intercourse.

"The natural shape of a calcite cobble has been used to represent the outline of two figures in coitus. Their heads, arms and legs appear as raised areas around which the surface has been picked away. The figures have no faces. The arms of one hug the shoulders of the other and its knees are bent up underneath those of the slightly smaller figure.

"This figurine was found by a Bedouin and sold to the French Fathers at Bethlehem . It was then acquired by the French consul and prehistorian René Neuville who attributed it to the cave of Ain Sakhri where he excavated and found Natufian material. Although the source area of the figurine is not in doubt, its association with Ain Sakhri is unproven. This image of a couple making love is also phallic in all aspects. Although unique in showing a couple, simple phallic carvings are known from other Natufian sites. These have been associated with fertility rites but the arguments have tended to be simplistic" (The British Museum Collection online, accessed 06-02-2013). 

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Genome of Child from Clovis Culture Confirms Asian Origin of North American Native Peoples Circa 9,000 BCE – 8,700 BCE

On February 13, 2014 a team of scientists headed by Morton Rasmussen, a postdoctoral fellow in genetics at Stanford University, published the genome of a child from the Clovis culture. The remains sequenced were discovered in 1969 at the Anzick Clovis site, a human burial site dated 11,000 to 10,700 years before present, near the town of Wilsall in southwestern Montana.

The genome sequence—the first completed of a prehistoric Native American— determined that the Anzick child was a boy, and that he, and Clovis people in general, were closely related genetically to Native American groups from Central and South America, but not to later migrations of Canadian and Arctic groups. The evidence supported the theory that the Americas were colonized in several waves of populations crossing the Bering Strait from Asia, and contradicted the Solutrean hypothesis, which suggests that Clovis people derived from Upper Paleolithic European migrations into the Americas. No connection to European Upper Paleolithic genetics was identified within the Anzick child's remains. 

Rasmussen et al, "The genome of a Late Pleistocene human from a Clovis burial site in western Montana," Nature 506 (13 Feburary 2014) 225-29.

"Clovis, with its distinctive biface, blade and osseous technologies, is the oldest widespread archaeological complex defined in North America, dating from 11,100 to 10,700 C years before present (BP) (13,000 to 12,600 calendar yearsBP). Nearly 50years of archaeological research point to the Clovis complex as having developed south of the North American ice sheets from an ancestral technology. However, both the origins and the genetic legacy of the people who manufactured Clovis tools remain under debate. It is generally believed that these people ultimately derived from Asia and were directly related to contemporary Native Americans. An alternative, Solutrean, hypothesis posits that the Clovis predecessors emigrated from southwestern Europe during the Last Glacial Maximum. Here we report the genome sequence of a male infant (Anzick-1) recovered from the Anzick burial site in western Montana. The human bones date to 10,705±35C yearsBP (approximately 12,707–12,556 calendar yearsBP) and were directly associated with Clovis tools. We sequenced the genome to an average depth of 14.4×and show that the gene flow from the Siberian Upper Palaeolithic Mal’ta population into Native American ancestors is also shared by the Anzick-1 individual and thus happened before 12,600 yearsBP. We also show that the Anzick-1 individual is more closely related to all indigenous American populations than to any other group. Our data are compatible with the hypothesis that Anzick-1 belonged to a population directly ancestral to many contemporary Native Americans. Finally, we find evidence of a deep divergence in Native American populations that predates the Anzick-1 individual." (Abstract). 

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Fort Rock Sandals: The Oldest Surviving Shoes Circa 8,500 BCE – 7,200 BCE

In 1938 American field archaeologist Luther Cressman of the University of Oregon found dozens of sandals below a layer of volcanic ash while excavating at Fort Rock Cave, located in a small volcanic butte approximately half a mile west of the Fort Rock volcanic crater in central Oregon. These sandals, named for the site where they were first found, were later reported from ancient deposits in several Northern Great Basin caves. They are the oldest surviving shoes.

"Most dated Fort Rock-style sandals are from Fort Rock Cave, but directly dated sandals of this type are also known from Cougar Mountain and Catlow Caves. Directly dated Fort Rock style sandals range in age from at least 10,500 BP to 9200 BP (based on dendrocalibrated radiocarbon ages). . . . Fort Rock sandals are stylistically distinct. They are twined (pairs of weft fibers twisted around warps), and have a flat, close-twined sole, usually with five rope warps. Twining proceeded from the heel to the toe, where the warps were subdivided into finer warps and turned back toward the heel. These fine warps were then open-twined (with spaces between the weft rows) to make a toe flap. Cressman surmised that a tie rope attached to one edge of the sole wrapped around the ankle and fastened to the opposite edge" (http://pages.uoregon.edu/connolly/FRsandals.htm,  accessed 06-24-2014).

Fort Rock sandals are preserved at the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History in Eugene, Oregon. In June 2014 a color image of one of the earliest Fort Rock Sandals was reproduced by the National Geographic from their September 2006 issue at this link. The article stated that the sandal illustrated was worn by a native North American who lived in caves during the winter months and hunted in marshes in summer.

Cressman, Luther S. The Sandal and the Cave: The Indians of Oregon (1981).

In May 2014 Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) aired a documentary entitled Luther Cressman, Quest for the First People. I could not find a way to embed the video in this entry; however, in June 2014 it could be viewed at this link.

My thanks to Lisa Midlam for drawing my attention to the Fort Rock Sandals and for supplying most of the references that I used for this entry.

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