Researchers find earliest evidence for modern human behavior in South Africa

Public release date: 17-Oct-2007

Contact: Carol Hughes



Arizona State University


TEMPE, Ariz. – Evidence of early humans living on the coast in South Africa, harvesting food from the sea, employing complex bladelet tools and using red pigments in symbolic behavior 164,000 years ago, far earlier than previously documented, is being reported in the Oct. 18 issue of the journal Nature. The international team of researchers reporting the findings include Curtis Marean, a paleoanthropologist with the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University and three graduate students in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change.


“Our findings show that at 164,000 years ago in coastal South Africa humans expanded their diet to include shellfish and other marine resources, perhaps as a response to harsh environmental conditions,” notes Marean, a professor in ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change. “This is the earliest dated observation of this behavior.”


Further, the researchers report that co-occurring with this diet expansion is a very early use of pigment, likely for symbolic behavior, as well as the use of bladelet stone tool technology, previously dating to 70,000 years ago.


These new findings not only move back the timeline for the evolution of modern humans, they show that lifestyles focused on coastal habitats and resources may have been crucial to the evolution and survival of these early humans.


After decades of debate, paleoanthropologists now agree the genetic and fossil evidence suggests that the modern human species – Homo sapiens – evolved in Africa between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago.


Yet, archaeological sites during that time period are rare in Africa. And, given the enormous expanse of the continent, where in Africa did this crucial step to modern humans occur"


“Archaeologists have had a hard time finding material residues of these earliest modern humans,” Marean says. “The world was in a glacial stage 125,000 to 195,000 years ago, and much of Africa was dry to mostly desert; in many areas food would have been difficult to acquire. The paleoenvironmental data indicate there are only five or six places in all of Africa where humans could have survived these harsh conditions.”


In seeking the “perfect site” to explore, Marean analyzed ocean currents, climate data, geological formations and other data to pin down a location where he felt sure to find one of these progenitor populations: the Cape of South Africa at Pinnacle Point.


“It was important that we knew exactly where to look and what we were looking for,” says Marean. This type of research is expensive and funding is competitive. Marean and the team of scientists who set out to Pinnacle Point to search for this elusive population, did so with the help of a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Human Origins: Moving in New Directions (HOMINID) program.


Their findings are reported in the Nature paper “Early human use of marine resources and pigment in South Africa during the Middle Pleistocene.” In addition to Marean, authors on the paper include three graduate students in ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change: Erin Thompson, Hope Williams and Jocelyn Bernatchez. Other authors are Miryam Bar-Matthews of the Geological Survey of Israel, Erich Fisher of the University of Florida, Paul Goldberg of Boston University, Andy I.R. Herries of the University of New South Wales (Australia), Zenobia Jacobs of the University of Wollongong (Australia), Antonieta Jerardino of the University of Cape Town (South Africa), Panagiotis Karkanas of Greece’s Ministry of Culture, Tom Minichillo of the University of Washington, Ian Watts from London and excavation co-director Peter J. Nilssen of the Iziko South African Museum.


The Middle Stone Age, dated between 35,000 and 300,000 years ago, is the technological stage when anatomically modern humans emerged in Africa, along with modern cognitive behavior, says Marean. When, however, within that stage modern human behavior arose is currently debated, he adds.


“This time is beyond the range of radiocarbon dating, yet the dates on the finds published here are more secure than is typical due to the use of two advanced and independent techniques,” Marean says.


Uranium series dates were attained by Bar-Matthews on speleothem (the material of stalagmites), and optically stimulated luminescence dates were developed by Jacobs. According to Marean, the latter technique dates the last time that individual grains of sand were exposed to light, and thousands of grains were measured.


 “Generally speaking, coastal areas were of no use to early humans – unless they knew how to use the sea as a food source” says Marean. “For millions of years, our earliest hunter-gatherer relatives only ate terrestrial plants and animals. Shellfish was one of the last additions to the human diet before domesticated plants and animals were introduced.”


Before, the earliest evidence for human use of marine resources and coastal habitats was dated about 125,000 years ago. “Our research shows that humans started doing this at least 40,000 years earlier. This could have very well been a response to the extreme environmental conditions they were experiencing,” he says.


“We also found what archaeologists call bladelets – little blades less than 10 millimeters in width, about the size of your little finger,” Marean says. “These could be attached to the end of a stick to form a point for a spear, or lined up like barbs on a dart – which shows they were already using complex compound tools. And, we found evidence that they were using pigments, especially red ochre, in ways that we believe were symbolic,” he describes.


Archaeologists view symbolic behavior as one of the clues that modern language may have been present. The earliest bladelet technology was previously dated to 70,000 years ago, near the end of the Middle Stone Age, and the modified pigments are the earliest securely dated and published evidence for pigment use.


“Coastlines generally make great migration routes,” Marean says. “Knowing how to exploit the sea for food meant these early humans could now use coastlines as productive home ranges and move long distances.”


Results reporting early use of coastlines are especially significant to scientists interested in the migration of humans out of Africa. Physical evidence that this coastal population was practicing modern human behavior is particularly important to geneticists and physical anthropologists seeking to identify the progenitor population for modern humans.


“This evidence shows that Africa, and particularly southern Africa, was precocious in the development of modern human biology and behavior. We believe that on the far southern shore of Africa there was a small population of modern humans who struggled through this glacial period using shellfish and advanced technologies, and symbolism was important to their social relations. It is possible that this population could be the progenitor population for all modern humans,” Marean says.


Arizona State University (www.asu.edu)

College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (www.asu.edu/clas)

Institute of Human Origins (www.asu.edu/clas/iho)

School of Human Evolution and Social Change (www.asu.edu/clas/shesc)

Tempe, Arizona USA



Cave clue to 'first beachcombers'


The waste from shellfish dinners discarded in a South African cave is said to be the earliest evidence of humans living and thriving by the sea.


The material was found by scientists working in a sandstone opening at Pinnacle Point on the Cape.


Researchers tell the journal Nature the remains were buried in sediments that are 164,000 years old.


The exploitation of coastal resources is thought to have been key in allowing early humans to move across the globe.


"All we find is the trash that was left behind, so we have to interpret what they were doing from the remains," said team member Erin Thompson from Arizona State University (ASU), US.


"[The layer of material] is about half-a-metre deep. It's cemented up against the side of the cave. That would be tens of thousands of years of garbage," she told the BBC.


The team excavated from the cave the cooked remains of some 15 types of marine invertebrate, mainly brown mussels, as well as other animal bones.


The researchers also found pieces of ochre, a soft stone that can be scraped to produce powders with rich pigments.


Ochres are viewed as important indicators of advanced behaviour - the use of colour for symbolism. And although the powders can have a functional use, as an ingredient in glue, the persistent choice of the brightest hues suggests some abstract activity is being undertaken, such as body painting.


Being able to conceptualise - the ability to let one thing represent another - was a giant leap in human evolution. It was the mental activity that would eventually permit the development of sophisticated language and maths.


To unearth worked ochres at Pinnacle Point at this time, near the base of the time period when modern humans (Homo sapiens) are thought to have first evolved in Africa about 200,000 years ago, is in itself a remarkable finding.


"There is some potential ochre use earlier than this but Pinnacle Point is much the best context. There is a lot of red ochre and the colour is very striking," commented Professor Chris Stringer, of London's Natural History Museum, who was not connected with the research team.


"Even if some of it might be having a functional purpose, with that amount and the fact they are selecting this particular colour must have symbolic significance, we think."


ASU palaeoanthropologist Professor Curtis Marean said: "We also found what archaeologists call 'bladelets' - little blades less than 10mm in width, about the size of your little finger.


"These could be attached to the end of a stick to form a point for a spear, or lined up like barbs on a dart - which shows they were already using complex compound tools."


The very earliest human species would have been restricted to a diet of plants, such as berries and tubers, and the meat of animals they could catch.


The expansion to shellfish is one of the last additions of a new class of food to the human diet before the introduction of domesticated livestock meat just a few thousand years ago, the researchers tell Nature.


"Coastlines have few resources to attract hunter-gatherers if their diets do not include shellfish and/or fish. Once they do, coastlines become attractive for settlement and movement," they write.


"It has been argued that shellfish exploitation was crucial to a potential early coastal route of modern humans out of Africa via the Red Sea coast."


One of the great challenges for scientists has been to assemble the data to back up this theory. The difficulty is that rising and falling sea levels over millennia have almost certainly washed away key evidence.


The Pinnacle Point cave, although it stands directly on the coast today some 15m above the waves, would actually have been a few km from the shoreline when its inhabitants were eating their shellfish meals.


Settlements directly on or near the beach 164,000 years ago would now be under water.


As well as ASU workers, the research team included members from Israel, Australia, UK, Greece, and South Africa itself.


One tantalising find was a whale barnacle. "It suggests they might have used whale blubber. They probably weren't hunting the whale but if it washed up on shore they probably thought it was good to eat," said Ms Thompson.



Cavemen 'may have used language'

By Richard Gray, Science Correspondent

Last Updated: 1:06am BST 21/10/2007


They are typically portrayed as primitive brutes capable only of grunting, but new research now suggests Neanderthals may have whiled away the hours in their caves in conversation.


Scientists who have been trawling through the DNA found in Neanderthal bones have discovered that the now extinct species had a “language gene” that is only found in modern humans.


Their controversial findings create the tantalising possibility that Neanderthals were in fact capable of speech much like humans and communicated with each other through their own language.


As language is seen as one of the key cornerstones that has set humans apart from other animals and allowed sophisticated cultures to develop, many anthropologists now believe it may have allowed Neanderthals to have their own culture.


It is a stark contrast to the traditional image of Neanderthals as simple-minded cavemen and the latest research has shed new light on how Neanderthals evolved from our common ancestor more than 400,000 years ago.


Professor Svante Paabo, who has been leading the Neanderthal genome project at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, said the presence of the language gene would change the way people view Neanderthals.


He said: “It is not a compliment to be called a Neanderthal, but we are finding that the Neanderthal DNA looks much more like contemporary humans than chimps.


“The human variations of this gene involved in the use of language are not found in apes and for a long time there has been speculation Neanderthals would have a different gene and so a different linguistic ability.


“By looking at their DNA, we have found that from the point of view of this gene, there is no reason they would not have spoken like we do. It is a very contentious area with a lot of different views.”


His teams findings support previous work that has attempted to model the Neanderthals throat and larynx from their remains. While some scientists have insisted they would have spoken, others have dismissed the idea.


Until recently common scientific opinion has painted a picture of Neanderthals as a slow and dim-witted species that was outwitted by its smarter cousins who went on to become modern humans while the Neanderthals died out.


But there is now a growing consensus that Neanderthals were perhaps far more sophisticated than they have been given credit for capable of making stone tools and even cleaned their teeth.


The discovery of the gene, called FOXP2, have provided the strongest evidence yet that these heavily built species were capable of speech, although the researchers are unable to say what extent their linguistic ability would have been.


FOXP2 is thought to be crucial to the development of language as it governs the fine control of muscles that is needed to form words with the larynx, lips and tongue.


Professor Paabo has been leading research to create the first ever profile of the Neanderthal genome from the remains of nine Neanderthal’s, thought to have been killed and eaten by cannibals 42,000 years ago, that were found in a cave in Northern Spain.


The bones are carefully collected and frozen in the cave to avoid contamination before the DNA is extracted in the lab and profiled.


But some scientists have warned that it is not possible draw any conclusions about the Neanderthals ability to speak from the research, which is published in the journal Current Biology.


Dr Simon Fisher, one of the scientists at Oxford University who discovered FOXP2, said: “This is a really fascinating study, but analysis of a single gene is not enough to resolve the big question of whether or not Neanderthals were capable of speech or for us to estimate what level of complexity their vocal communication could achieve.”


Dr Simon Underdown, an anthropologist at Oxford Brookes University, insists, however, that the new research will revolutionise the way people look at Neanderthals.


He said: “This research should finally blow away the last vestiges of the Neanderthal as a dull-witted cave man.”




Lived 350,000 -24,000 years ago


Spread across Europe and as far east as southern Siberia and Uzbekistan


Last known refuge in caves in southern Iberia


Died off just 10,000 yeas after modern man arrived in Europe


Distinct species from modern humans although scientists debate if they interbred


Average male stood 5.4 feet tall while females were 5 feet tall but heavily built


Skulls had 10 per cent greater capacity than modern humans


Most Neanderthals died by the age of 30 years old


Named after Neander Valley near Dusseldorf, Germany, where first key fossils were found


Early Neanderthals scavenged for food but later used may have used spears to hunt



First Farmers Wanted Clothes, Not Food

Anna Salleh


Oct. 15, 2007 — People turned to farming to grow fiber for clothing, and not to provide food, says one researcher who challenges conventional ideas about the origins of agriculture.


Ian Gilligan, a postgraduate researcher from the Australian National University, says his theory also explains why Aboriginal Australians were not generally farmers.


Gilligan says they did not need fiber for clothing, so had no reason to grow crops like cotton.


He argues his case in the current issue of the Bulletin of the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association.


"Conventional thinking assumes that the transition to farming was related to people's need to find new ways of getting food," said Gilligan. "That doesn't really make sense for a number of reasons."


It doesn't explain why cultivating plants and domesticating animals only started 10,000 years ago in some areas of the world.


Gilligan says a better explanation is climate.


In the northern hemisphere during the last ice age it was roughly 20 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than today, which led hunters and gatherers to develop sophisticated forms of clothing.


This included tailored and multilayered clothes, including underclothes, to keep out the cold winds, said Gilligan.


Animal hides and furs from hunted animals provided the most suitable warm clothing, he said.


But once the climate warmed, humans wanted lighter and more breathable clothing.


Textiles based on fiber crops such as cotton, linen and hemp and woolly animals like sheep and goats did the job.


At the same time, said Gilligan, clothing became important as a form of display and decoration.


But the story in Australia was different.


"In Australia, even in Tasmania, conditions were never so cold that Aboriginal people needed multilayered tailored garments," Gilligan said.


In this most severe environment, temperatures were only about 10 degrees lower than today. Aboriginal people habitually went without clothing and when they did wear something it was simple.


For example, they might have draped a single layered wallaby fur cloak around their shoulders at the height of the last ice age, and decorations were made directly on their body.


There was no incentive for Aboriginal people to take up farming because all their needs were met by hunting and gathering, said Gilligan.


"The idea that early farming offered humans a more reliable food supply has been exposed as a myth," he said.


Hunting and gathering was a far more flexible, reliable and efficient way of getting food, he argues.


"Australian Aborigines never worried where their next meal was coming from, even in the outback, and they enjoyed much more leisure time than any early farmers," he said.


Lindsay Falvey, a professor from the University of Melbourne, whose research interests include agriculture in traditional societies, said Gilligan's paper is "really important."


"There's been a lot of difficulty how we explain the transition from hunting and gathering to farming," he said.


Falvey, a former dean of agriculture at the university, thinks both clothes and food were important in establishing agriculture, which he sees as a product of co-evolution between humans, plants and animals.


Whatever the origins of agriculture, he welcomes Gilligan's contribution.


"Keeping the discussion open, like this paper does, is the most important thing," he said.



Archaeologists in Moravia discover 7000 year-old sculpture

[19-10-2007] By Jan Richter


The find of the century is what Czech archaeologists are calling the discovery of a 7000 year-old statue in Masovice, a village just west of Znojmo, South Moravia. Although only the lower parts of the sculpture have been found, experts say that Hedvika, as the statue has been named by those who discovered it, is a unique find in a European context.


On Wednesday, experts from the Brno Archaeological Institute marked a discovery that could change the way historians look at the era of 7 000 years ago, known as the Neolithic Age. During an emergency survey on a building site in the community of Masovice, some 8 km north of Znojmo in South Moravia, they discovered fragments of a ceramic female sculpture. Archaeologist Zdenek Cizmar, who was the first to lay his hands on this unusual find, explains the significance of the discovery.

"The sculpture is unique for two reasons; one of them is its size. The fragment we have found is 30 centimetres tall, from its feet to the waistline. We therefore estimate its overall original height to be 55 to 60 centimetres; this means that it is the largest statue of the Moravian Painted Ware culture ever found in the whole Middle Danube Basin".


The people of the Moravian Painted Ware culture formed a part of the Neolithic civilization of central Europe in the period between 5000 and 4000 BC and they were particularly distinguished for their pottery skills. Many other figurines have been found in sites across Moravia, Slovakia, Hungary and Austria, but the recently discovered statue is different in yet another way - it is hollow. As Zdenek Cizmar says, archaeologists are still not quite sure why.

"We have two possible explanations. It could either be some sort of a technological issue to make sure the statue was easier to dry and burn. It is also possible that the sculpture, which surely served some ritual purposes, could also be used as a vessel to pour liquid from during ritual ceremonies."


Following an unwritten rule of their profession, archaeologists from the Brno institute gave the statue the name of Hedvika, as Wednesday was Hedvika's holiday in the Czech Republic. Now the experts are hoping to find the rest of the figurine in remaining parts of the survey zone that are yet waiting to be uncovered and explored. The fragments of Hedvika are currently being studied by scholars from the Brno Archaeological Institute but they promise that next year, it will be displayed at the South Moravian Museum in Znojmo.



Saxon graves found at school


WHEN workmen discovered human remains as they cleared a site for new classrooms at a Twyford school, staff briefly thought they had a crime scene on their hands.


The panic soon turned into a historical feast for pupils and teachers alike, however, when it turned out the bones found at Twyford School were more than 1,000 years old.


Now, work on the site has halted as archaeologists try to find out more about what they think is a Saxon burial site - a very rare find.


A full excavation of the area is underway to make sure all remains are recorded and taken away for further investigation.


Paul McCulloch, project manager for Wessex Archaeology, which is carrying out the work, said: "The first time Twyford, which means Two Fords', is mentioned in historical sources is the seventh century.


"We think the burials date right back to this time, about 1,300 years ago.



"Three or four Anglo-Saxon cemeteries of this date are already known around Winchester, including one at Oliver's Battery, and some of the finds there are on display in Winchester Museum."


Although the discovery has caused a delay to the building of the new classrooms, along with a changing room, tractor shed and more parking, it has provided the school's 310 pupils with a real-life history lesson.


History teacher, Heather Hayter, said: "The school is delighted to facilitate this exciting development, which may give archaeologists and historians new insights into life in this area in the first few centuries AD.


"Previously, I have had to describe to children how archaeologists work and to show pictures of Saxon ornaments, but now I have been able to take children and show them this happening just outside the classroom, which has been a really exciting experience of great educational value."


The new buildings are due to be finished in March next year.




By Caroline Lewis     17/10/2007


New evidence has been discovered that the medieval caves under Nottingham’s Galleries of Justice museum were once used by the Sheriff of Nottingham as a prison.


The dark dungeon cells would have been in use when the Sheriff resided at the Shire Hall and County Gaol.


“It is an exciting discovery,” said Tim Desmond, Chief Executive at the Galleries. “The cave has always been known as the ‘Sheriff’s Dungeon’, but until now we have only been aware of its later use as a chapel for the Georgian prison.”


He pointed out that not much thought had ever been given to its previous use as a cell for the Sheriff’s Hall that was originally on the site, until research into a new exhibition on the Sheriff of Nottingham. Staff then uncovered evidence that the Sheriff did indeed imprison felons in the lower level caves under the building.


“So far we have discovered an ancient staircase that led down to the cells and we are also excavating an area next to the cave,” said Tim.


There is, of course, the tantalising possibility that the cave prison had a very famous resident, and there are plans to allow the public to have a look for themselves.


“This is the first time visitors to the Galleries of Justice will be able to see the dungeon where Robin Hood would have been imprisoned in medieval times and already we have received a lot of interest from the public, from as far away as Japan,” said Tim.


NCCL Galleries of Justice

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