Monday, December 16, 2019
ARS TECHNICA Arstechnica.com
KIONA N. SMITH - 12/15/2019
At this very moment, you're a participant in one of the things that makes us human: the telling and consumption of stories. It's impossible to say when our species began telling each other stories—or when we first evolved the ability to use language to communicate not only simple, practical concepts but to share vivid accounts of events real or imagined. But by 43,900 years ago, people on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi had started painting some of their stories in images on cave walls.
A newly discovered painting in a remote cave depicts a hunting scene, and it's the oldest story that has been recorded. And if Griffith University archaeologist Maxime Aubert and his colleagues are right, it could also be the first record of spiritual belief—and our first insight into what the makers of cave art were thinking.
A 44,000-year-old hunting story
Across a 4.5 meter (14.8 foot) section of rock wall, 3 meters (9.8 feet) above the floor of a hard-to-reach upper chamber of a site called Liang Bulu'Sipong 4, wild pigs and dwarf buffalo called anoa face off against a group of strangely tiny hunters in monochrome dark red. A dark red hand stencil adorns the left end of the mural, almost like an ancient artist's signature. Through an opening in the northeast wall of the cave, sunlight spills in to illuminate the scene.
Liang Bulu'Sipong 4 is a living cave, still being reshaped by flowing water, and layers of rock have begun to grow over the painting in spots. The minerals that form those layers include small traces of uranium, which over time decays into thorium-230. Unlike the uranium, the thorium isn't water-soluble and can only get into the rock via decay. By measuring the ratio of uranium-234 to thorium-230 in the rock, archaeologists can tell how recently the rock layer formed.
The deposits have been slowly growing over the hunting mural for at least 49,300 years, which means the painting itself may be even older than that. That makes the Liang Bulu'Sipong 4 mural the oldest record (that we know of) of an actual story. At first glance, it seems to suggest a game drive, in which people flush animals from cover and drive them toward a line of hunters with spears or other weapons. If Aubert and his colleagues are right about that, it means that somebody 44,000 years ago created a firsthand record of how they made a living.
A scene from legend?
But the oldest story ever recorded by human hands may be something more than a hunting record. "Some, or all, aspects of this imagery may not pertain to human experiences in the real world," wrote Aubert and his colleagues. Up close, the tiny hunters don't look quite human; many of them have strangely elongated faces, more like animal muzzles or snouts. One has a tail, and another appears to have a beak.
The figures could represent human hunters clad in skins or masks. Aubert and his colleagues, however, say they look more like therianthropes: human-animal hybrids that show up in cultures around the world, including in 15,500-year-old paintings in the Lascaux caves of France and a 40,000-year-old carved figure from Germany.
Whether they're human, animal, or a bit of both, the hunters are facing prey animals of monstrous or mythological proportions. In real life, an anoa stands about 100cm (39.4 inches) tall, and an Indonesian wild pig stands only 60cm (23.6 inches) tall. On the wall of Liang Bulu'Sipong 4, though, the creatures loom many times larger than the hunters arrayed against them. It looks like a scene out of a legend, not a dry record of another day's hunting.
And its presence suggests that Liang Bulu'Sipong 4 may have been a sacred, or at least important, place to the people who once lived in the area. Archaeologists found no trace of the usual debris of human life—stone tools, discarded bones, and cooking fires—anywhere in the cave or in the much larger chamber beneath it. That's no wonder: Liang Bulu'Sipong 4 is set in a cliff 20 meters above the valley floor, and one doesn't simply walk in.
"Accessing it requires climbing, and this is not an occupation site," Aubert told Ars. "So people were going in there for another reason."
The invention of fiction
Forty-four thousand years later, we have part of a story but no context; there's no way to know who the hunters or their giant prey were or exactly what they meant to the people of Sulawesi. The long-ago artist may have been memorializing the content of a spiritual leader's recent vision or a scene from a legend already well known to their people. The image may have conveyed something important about the connection between humans and animals or predator and prey, or it may have been an origin story or a dire warning.
But the Liang Bulu'Sipong 4 painting may provide the oldest hint about spiritual beliefs, and Aubert and his colleagues say it could contribute to the ongoing debate about how our species developed religion. The panel could have a lot to say about how and when hominins evolved the cognitive ability to think about myth and religion and about how human cultures developed shared beliefs about the supernatural.
At the moment, the leading ideas suggest that before we could develop religion, we had to develop the ability to think and talk about things that don't exist in the natural, physical world. We had to learn to describe and imagine not just things we had already seen, but things no one had ever seen—like therianthropes and giant wild animals. In other words, we had to invent the concept of fiction.
"The ability to invent fictional stories may have been the last and most crucial stage in the evolutionary history of human language and the development of modern-like patterns of cognition," wrote Aubert and his colleagues.
One thing the discovery definitely suggests is that the story of art, myth, and storytelling didn't start in Europe and spread to the rest of the world from there, as some anthropologists had once supposed. The oldest known cave art in the world is an abstract image, which seems to have been made by Neanderthals in Spain 65,000 years ago. But the oldest art that's clearly a picture of something is a 40,000-year-old painting of a wild cow from another Indonesian island, Kalimantan. That's about the same age as the oldest Homo sapiens abstract art in Europe. A painting of a wild pig in another Sulawesi cave comes in a close second at 35,400 years old.
The whole island of Sulawesi is a gallery of Pleistocene art; its karst geology has created a vast network of limestone caves, which ancient people were using as shelters by at least 50,000 years ago (probably closer to 65,000 years ago, based on evidence from elsewhere in Southeast Asia). Archaeologists have found paintings on the rock walls of at least 242 cave sites so far, but many—until recently including Liang Bulu'Sipong 4—remain unexplored and undocumented.
"We will continue to explore Sulawesi and the wider region for more early rock art," Aubert told Ars. The team also plans to date more rock samples from Liang Bulu'Sipong 4. "The dates that we have obtained so far are minimum ages, so the art could be much older. So perhaps new dating samples will reveal older age for this art," he explained.
But archaeologists may be racing against time and weather. At nearly every rock-art site in Sulawesi, they've noticed that the paint, which has held on for tens of thousands of years, is flaking away. "If you examine the photographs we have published of the rock-art scene at Leang Bulu' Sipong 4, you will notice how much of the art has flaked away," he told Ars. "We need funding to work with our Indonesian colleagues to figure out why this deeply ancient and globally significant art is exfoliating so quickly at almost every site and what to do about it."
Monday, November 4, 2019
Researchers are analyzing DNA from ancient individuals found in southeast Alaska, coastal British Columbia, Washington state and Montana. A new genetic analysis of some of these human remains finds that many of today’s indigenous peoples living in the same regions are descendants of ancient individuals dating to at least 10,300 years ago. Graphic by Julie McMahon, University of Illinois
10,000 years of genetic continuity in northwest North America
HeritageDailyApril 5, 2017
A study of the DNA in ancient skeletal remains adds to the evidence that indigenous groups living today in southern Alaska and the western coast of British Columbia are descendants of the first humans to make their home in northwest North America more than 10,000 years ago.
“Our analysis suggests that this is the same population living in this part of the world over time, so we have genetic continuity from 10,000 years ago to the present,” said University of Illinois anthropology professor Ripan Malhi, who led the study with University of Chicago postdoctoral researcher John Lindo; Penn State University biology professor Michael DeGiorgio; Rosita Worl, the director of the Sealaska Heritage Institute in Juneau, Alaska; and University of Oklahoma anthropology professor Brian M. Kemp.
The findings, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also suggest that these early American peoples had a complex population history, the researchers report.
The new work comes on the heels of earlier studies of ancient Americans that focused on mitochondrial DNA, which occurs outside the nucleus of cells and is passed only from mothers to their offspring.
“Mitochondrial DNA just traces the maternal line – your mother’s mother’s lineage – so, you’re missing information about all of these other ancestors,” said Lindo, the first author on the paper. “We wanted to analyze the nuclear genome so we could get a better assessment of the population history of this region.”
The team looked at genomic data from Shuká Káa (Tlingit for “Man Before Us”), an ancient individual whose remains – found in a cave in southeastern Alaska – date to about 10,300 years ago. They also analyzed the genomes of three more individuals from the nearby coast of British Columbia whose remains date to between 6,075 and 1,750 years ago.
“Interestingly, the mitochondrial type that Shuká Káa belonged to was also observed from another ancient skeleton dated to about 6,000 years ago,” Kemp said. “It seems to disappear after that. The nuclear DNA suggests that this is probably not about population replacement, but rather chance occurrence through time. If a female has no children or only sons, the mitochondrial DNA is not passed to the next generation. As a male, Shuká Káa could not have passed on his own mitochondrial DNA; he must have had some maternal relatives that did so.”
The researchers turned their attention to nuclear DNA, which offers a more comprehensive record of a person’s ancestry.
“DNA from the mitochondria and Y chromosome provide unique yet sometimes conflicting stories, but the nuclear genome provides a more comprehensive view of past events,” DeGiorgio said.
“The data suggest that there were multiple genetic lineages in the Americas from at least 10,300 years ago,” Malhi said.
The descendants of some of those lineages are still living in the same region today, and a few are co-authors on the new study. Their participation is the result of a long-term collaboration between the scientists and several native groups who are embracing genomic studies as a way to learn from their ancestors, said Worl, who is Tlingit, Ch’áak’ (Eagle) moiety of the Shangukeidí (Thunderbird) Clan from the Kawdliyaayi Hít (House Lowered From the Sun) in Klukwan, Alaska.
“We supported DNA testing of Shuká Káa because we believed science ultimately would agree with what our oral traditions have always said – that we have lived in southeast Alaska since time immemorial. The initial analysis showed the young man was native, and now further studies are showing that our ancestral lineage stems from the first initial peopling of the region,” said Worl, who also is an anthropologist. “Science is corroborating our oral histories.”
Sunday, November 3, 2019
Oldest Evidence of North American Settlement May Have Been Found in Idaho
The first settlers of North America might have been seafarers
Humans might have first settled North America around 16,000 years ago, setting off on boats from northeast Asia and traveling along the Pacific Coast, new findings suggest. That's the earliest evidence yet of settlement in this region.
The mystery of how the first settlers arrived in North America remains hotly debated. For years, the dominant theory has been that the first people to arrive in North America walked across the Bering Land Bridge, which connected Asia and North America, when sea levels dropped at the end of the last ice age. From there, the theory holds, they followed an ice-free corridor which opened around 14,800 years ago, down to North America.
But growing evidence suggests that the first settlers didn't trudge through a flat, grassy plain following large prey, but rather set off along the Pacific Coast in ancient boats.
This ancient migration was one of the last major movements of people across the planet, said lead author Loren Davis, a professor of anthropology at Oregon State University. So, "people have a sense of wonder" about this journey, Davis said.
To re-create the picture of this vast, ancient migration, Davis and his team analyzed ancient remains found at the Cooper's Ferry archaeological site, which sits at the junction of the Rock Creek and the lower Salmon River in western Idaho.
The Cooper's Ferry site was first excavated back in the 1960s. Prior to that, it was once an ancient village called Nipéhe, according to oral histories recounted to Davis by the Niimíipuu tribe. Between 2009 and 2018, Davis and his team opened up and excavated two large holes in the ground — one of which is the focus of this study. In that pit, spanning just 23 feet by 43 feet (7 meters by 13 meters), they discovered a trove of early remains and artifacts.
The team uncovered 189 artifacts, including 27 stone tools and 161 pieces of debitage, or flakes of rock created in the process of making stone tools. The tools included stemmed point fragments, which have previously been found all around the western U.S.
They also found bone fragments from an extinct horse, Davis said. Around the animal bone fragments the team discovered numerous stone tools. A little ways away, they found something resembling a hearth or fire pit. "We think that represents someone butchering a horse," and then possibly cooking and eating it, Davis told Live Science.
This might be "the earliest radiocarbon-dated evidence of people interacting with extinct animals in North America," Davis said. Through radiocarbon dating, a method that analyzes radioactive carbon in biological samples to figure out their ages, they found that biological samples in the hearth were similar in age to the bones.
The radiocarbon dating of these charcoal and bone samples revealed that people occupied the area for a long period of time, but the oldest biological samples were between 16,560 and 15,280 years old. Since they were found in the same layers as human artifacts, such as tools, they are likely of similar age, Davis said.
For a long time, it was thought that the first settlers of the Americas were the "Clovis" people who arrived around 13,000 years ago. But later excavations at various sites in North and South America revealed evidence of settlements that predated the Clovis culture, such as Monte Verde in Chile, which has some artifacts of human settlement that date to between 14,000 and 19,000 years ago.
These new results suggest that humans already lived in Idaho around 16,000 years ago — over a thousand years earlier than the time during which an ice-free corridor opened up across the western U.S. "So you might say that we refuted the hypothesis of the ice-free corridor," Davis said. The findings lend "great support to the idea that people came down the Pacific Coast instead."
This study "provides further support for the Pacific coast as the route by which Native Americans arrived in mid-latitude North America," said John Hoffecker, a fellow at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who was not a part of the study. But "the authors have exaggerated the results of the dating." The dating suggests that the "earliest occupation of Cooper's Ferry is likely to be somewhat younger," closer to 15,000 years ago, Hoffecker told Live Science.
The authors suggest that some of the tools they found at Cooper's Ferry, such as the spear or dart points, are very similar to those found in northern Japan from a similar time. "So one hypothesis is simply that you're looking at the extension culturally of people that are bringing these ideas with them from northern Japan," Davis said.
But "both genetics and dental anthropology indicate unequivocally that Native Americans are not derived from northern Japan," Hoffecker said referring to the ancient people who lived in Japan.
The comparison of these Western stemmed points with Japanese counterparts is "superficial and unconvincing, based on five specimens selected for suggested morphological similarity," said Ben Potter, the department chair and a professor of archeology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who was also not a part of the study.
What's more, the findings don't refute the idea that the first people arrived via the ice-free corridor, he said. The feature with the "oldest consistent dates," does not preclude the passage through the ice-free corridor, he said.
In any case, "there appears to be an interesting and dynamic geoarchaeological story here," Potter told Live Science. "My perspective is that Cooper’s Ferry is intriguing, but not paradigm shifting."
Next, Davis and his team hope to further explore if there really is a connection between these ancient inhabitants and the people of ancient Japan and spend more time analyzing the artifacts that they spent a decade excavating.
Friday, November 1, 2019
Monte Verde: Our Earliest Evidence of Humans Living in South America
By Bridget Alex November 1, 2019 2:00 AM
As the Ice Age began to wane, people from northeastern Asia spread to the Americas, some of the last uninhabited continents on Earth. The pioneers traveled south of mile-high ice sheets covering Canada and found vast lands, abounding with mammoth, giant sloth and other now-extinct megafauna.
This much has been known for decades. But when it comes to the details, debates have raged over precisely when and how humans populated the New World. Today, the story is beginning to take shape, thanks to well-dated archaeological sites, DNA analysis and geological work to understand when ice and sea levels permitted entry to the Americas. It’s clear that people occupied the continents by about 15,000 years ago, probably taking a route along the Pacific coast.
And one site, perhaps more than any other, helped scholars reach this conclusion: Chile’s Monte Verde. During excavations begun in the 1970s, archaeologists unearthed numerous artifacts, including remnants of 14,000-year-old huts, food scraps from megafauna and wads of masticated seaweed, likely chewed for medicinal purposes. The preservation was so exceptional, it cleared any doubt that humans had reached the New World by this time, and earned Monte Verde a place in every archaeology textbook to come.
Meanwhile, recent research on the site’s surroundings and deeper layers suggests humans inhabited this patch of South America as early as 19,000 years ago. While the claim remains controversial, it’s clear there’s still more to discover at Monte Verde.
Buried under a peat bog, Monte Verde is near South America’s tip and about 30 miles from the Pacific in present-day Chile. Excavations began in 1976, led by archaeologist Tom Dillehay. Although no human skeletons were found, an excavated layer — radiocarbon dated to about 14,000 years ago — held clear evidence of human inhabitants, including a child-sized footprint.
At Monte Verde, the researchers discovered the ruins of a forager campsite, about as large as a football field, on the bank of a meandering creek. Still surviving were the wooden foundations of a long, rectangular building, which was subdivided into a dozen rooms, each containing food remains and clay-lined fire pits. It seems to have been a communal residence divided into personal dwellings. About 100 feet from these living quarters stood a wishbone-shaped structure accompanied by tools and butchered animal parts — likely a work area.
The archaeologists also recovered spun grass rope, wooden lances, animal hides and human feces from the site. Perishable items like these are rarely preserved at archaeological sites. But because Monte Verde is below peat deposits, organic materials were protected from decomposition. Food scraps also survived, revealing the people gathered at least 60 species of edible and medicinal plants, including a variety of seaweed species brought from the coast. And they hunted now-extinct creatures such as paleocamelids (an ancestor of llama and alpaca) and elephant-like gomphotheres.
Breaking the Clovis Barrier
Just as significant, though, is what the excavators did not find: Monte Verde lacked Clovis points — distinctive stone tools found at North American sites dating to roughly 13,000 years ago. Through much of the 20th century, many archaeologists supported “Clovis First” — the hypothesis that the people who made these artifacts were the first inhabitants of the Americas. Reports of older pre-Clovis sites were dismissed on the grounds that they were incorrectly excavated or dated.
But Monte Verde was remarkably well-preserved, meticulously excavated and analyzed with state-of-the-art methods. It convinced the archaeological community that non-Clovis peoples reached South America by at least 14,000 years ago. Clovis was not first.
Since then, numerous pre-Clovis sites have been reported between 13,300 and 15,000 years old. North America holds about 10 of them. But in South America, besides Monte Verde and its surrounding area, there are only two others: Huaca Prieta in Peru and Arroyo Seco in Argentina. With so few comparative sites, it’s difficult to say who and how widespread the Monte Verde people were.
Dillehay and colleagues also reported potentially older artifacts from Monte Verde in a 1988 Nature paper. From a deeper layer dated to 30,000 years ago, they found three clay-lined burned areas and at least six stones that appear to have been shaped into tools. However, the finds were considered too meager to constitute a strong case for human presence.
Decades later, in 2013, Dillehay returned to the site to lead a team that dug 80 probes and test pits in the land around Monte Verde. The work, published in a 2015 PLOS One paper, identified 12 discrete spots with signs of a campfire (charcoal, ash, burned clay), stone tools and animal bones. Radiocarbon analysis dated the finds between 14,500 and 19,000 years ago.
The results suggest even earlier peopling of the Americas. Future work at Monte Verde may prove it.
Tuesday, October 1, 2019
From the Associated Press By RANDOLPH E. SCHMID, AP Science Writer Randolph E. Schmid, Ap Science Writer – Monday, March 7, 2011 3:00 pm ET
WASHINGTON – Thousands of years ago, our ancestors gave up foraging for food and took up farming, one of the most important and debated decisions in history.
Was farming more efficient than foraging? Did the easily hunted animals die out? Did the environment change? A new study by Samuel Bowles of the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico argues that early farming was not more productive than foraging, but people took it up for social and demographic reasons.
In Monday's edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Bowles analyzed what it would take to farm under primitive conditions. He concluded farming produced only about three-fifths of the food gained from foraging.
But, Bowles notes, farming became the most common way of living between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago because of its contribution to population growth and military power.
Without the need for constant movement, child-rearing would have been easier and safer, leading to a population increase, Bowles said. And since stored grain might be looted, farmer communities could have banded together for defense and would have eventually pushed out neighboring foragers, he suggests.
Brian Fagan, a professor emeritus of archaeology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, called Bowles' ideas "provocative and fascinating." It had been suspected that the earliest farming was not necessarily more productive, said Fagan, who was not part of the research. "What he does is to draw attention to the social and demographic factors that contributed so importantly to the spread of farming," Fagan said. "This is a useful contribution to a debate about agricultural origins that has been under way for generations."
Samuel Bowles Abstract:
Cultivation of cereals by the first farmers was not more productive than foraging
Did foragers become farmers because cultivation of crops was simply a better way to make a living? If so, what is arguably the greatest ever revolution in human livelihoods is readily explained. To answer the question, I estimate the caloric returns per hour of labor devoted to foraging wild species and cultivating the cereals exploited by the first farmers, using data on foragers and land-abundant hand-tool farmers in the ethnographic and historical record, as well as archaeological evidence. A convincing answer must account not only for the work of foraging and cultivation but also for storage, processing, and other indirect labor, and for the costs associated with the delayed nature of agricultural production and the greater exposure to risk of those whose livelihoods depended on a few cultivars rather than a larger number of wild species. Notwithstanding the considerable uncertainty to which these estimates inevitably are subject, the evidence is inconsistent with the hypothesis that the productivity of the first farmers exceeded that of early Holocene foragers. Social and demographic aspects of farming, rather than its productivity, may have been essential to its emergence and spread. Prominent among these aspects may have been the contribution of farming to population growth and to military prowess, both promoting the spread of farming as a livelihood.
Santa Fe Institute, Santa Fe, NM, 87501; and University of Siena, Siena 53100, Italy
Edited by Henry T. Wright, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, & approved February 2, 2011 (received for review July 26, 2010)
Full article from The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences for the United States of America.