Tag Archives: Neanderthal

Modern humans ventured into Neanderthal territory much earlier than we thought

Until now, archaeological findings suggested that Neanderthals disappeared from Europe about 40,000 years ago, soon after the arrival of Homo sapiens – with limited evidence of encounters between the two groups. But a new study is now saying otherwise, showing evidence that Homo sapiens ventured into Europe much earlier than we thought, deep into Neanderthal territory. 

Image credit: The researchers.

The discovery of a child’s tooth and hundreds of stone tools at a cave in France by a group of archaeologists and paleoanthropologists pushes back the arrival of Homo sapiens to about 54,000 years ago. The study also showed that the two types of humans alternated in living in the cave, located in the Rhone region of France.

“We’ve often thought that the arrival of modern humans in Europe led to the pretty rapid demise of Neanderthals, but this new evidence suggests that both the appearance of modern humans in Europe and disappearance of Neanderthals is much more complex than that,” study coauthor Chris Stringer said in a press statement.

A long-term project

Since 1990, the team of researchers has been carefully investigating the sediment on the cave floor. The site is a strategic point in the landscape, they argue, as the river Rhone flows through a narrow between two mountain ranges. Inhabitants of the site would have clear views of herds of animals, today replaced by trains and a highway.

The researchers now discovered hundreds of thousands of objects that they attributed to either modern humans or Neanderthals. These included triangular stone points that were used by Homo sapiens to cut or scrape and as spear tips. Similar tools from the same period were found 3,000 kilometers (1,900 miles) away in present-day Lebanon.

Image credit: The researchers.

Dental remains from at least seven individuals across 12 archaeological layers were also found in the cave. The researchers identified six of these individuals as Neanderthal. But there was a surprise. In a layer between the Neanderthal layers, the team found a fossil moral from a modern human child, between two and six years old.

While they couldn’t find evidence of cultural exchanges between modern humans and Neanderthals who alternated the cave, the succession of occupants is significant on its own. It’s the first-time evidence of the two groups living in the same place is found. They rotated quite rapidly, even abruptly, at least twice, according to the study. 

Understanding human history is a tricky process, but an important one. Modern humans originated in Africa and made their first migration between 50,000 to 70,000 years ago. Ancient hominins existed and coexisted before the emergence of Homo sapiens. Some of these groups are identified by fossils, while others by their genetic legacy. 

Many questions now remain after the study, as the researchers explain in a blog post in The Conversation. Did modern humans have a relationship with the Neanderthals, exchanging information for example? Did they interbreed at some point? How did modern humans learn about the stone tools in such a short period of time? 

“The findings are really exciting and are another piece in the puzzle of how and when modern humans arrived in Europe,” Stringer said. “Understanding more about the overlap between modern humans and other hominins in Eurasia is vital to understanding more about their interactions, and how we became the last remaining human species.”

The study was published in the journal Science Advances

How Neanderthals made indoor cave fires without choking

Reconstruction of ancient human in the Lazaret Cave, France. Credit: De Lumley, M. A.

Although early humans moved about from place to place with the seasons in search of food, they often used caves on a semi-permanent basis. These convenient natural dwellings offered shelter to small communities of hunter-gathers and were the focal center of many of their activities, from cooking to religious ceremonies. To supplement these activities, Neanderthals and early modern humans would often make fires inside the cave to roast their meat, warm themselves during cold nights, and illuminate the dark cavern. But there’s a problem: fires make a lot of smoke, and indoor smoke has the propensity to choke and blind people. So how did they do it?

According to a new study performed by archaeologists at Tel Aviv University, the indoor fires worked because they were perfectly planned. Ran Barkai and colleagues built a virtual model of the famous Lazaret Cave on the French Mediterranean coast, placing 16 hypothetical hearths throughout the cave, studying how smoke moved for each.

The Grotte du Lazaret along the French Riviera was excavated for many years, providing archaeologists and anthropologists with rich evidence including hearths of Neanderthals or their close relatives around 160,000 years ago. The cave offers generous living spaces, measuring 40 meters deep, up to 15 meters high, and 15 meters wide. Although Homo sapiens lived in this cave as well, judging from skeletal remains, some 40,000 years ago, Lazaret’s long history sheltering humans is largely tied to Neanderthals.

For each hypothetical hearth, the researchers simulated smoke density throughout the 290-square-meter cave. It turned out that the spot with the most optimal smoke dispersion coincided with the location of the actual hearths unearthed in the sediment layers of the cave. These hearths were all very closely placed across more than 150,000 years of habitation in virtually the same spot, around 13 meters from the cave mouth, roughly at the center of the cave.

In this location, the fire could be exploited to its fullest for various activities and needs while exposing them to a minimal amount of smoke. The least favorable location was the cave’s entrance — although the risk of smoke pollution is the lowest there, such a hearth is too far away to support other essential activities.

Previously, archaeologists had found multiple hearths across the cave’s 28 defined sediment layers (each corresponding to a distinct period of occupation), all of which were confined to the same five-square-meter area at the center of the cave. This prime location was close to areas of specialized activity, including those reserved for butchering animals like red deer, a space for drying and cooking meat, a dining area, another that served as a trash bin for discarded bones, a tool-making area, and sleeping quarters.

Neanderthal interior designers

This prehistoric cave organization was not random but rather planned, according to the location of the fireplace.

“It is clear to us that once they entered, they made a survey of the cave and they invited a Neanderthal internal designer, and they decided, ‘We’ll put the kitchen here, we’ll put the sleeping area over here,’ and so on,” Barkai said.

These findings speak volumes about the organizational capabilities of Neanderthals, who were able to choose the perfect location for their hearth and manage the cave’s space as early as 170,000 years ago — long before modern humans set foot in Europe.

“This ability reflects ingenuity, experience, and planned action, as well as awareness of the health damage caused by smoke exposure. In addition, the simulation model we developed can assist archaeologists excavating new sites, enabling them to look for hearths and activity areas at their optimal locations,” Professor Barkai concludes.

The use of fire by early humans is still a matter of contention. Questions remain about when exactly in our evolution humans learned how to control fire and ignite it at a will and when humans began using fire on a daily basis. But if Lazaret is any indication, at least some groups of Neanderthals seemed to have a very good grasp of ancient pyrotechnics.

The findings were reported in the journal Scientific Reports.

Neanderthal man suffered from earliest example of disease jumping from animal to human

The Old Man from La Chapelle, neanderthal reconstruction by Elisabeth Daynès.

In 1908, the brothers Amadee and Jean Bouyssonie found the most complete Neanderthal skeleton to date in a small cave near La Chapelle-aux-Saints, in France. The specimen, known as the “Old Man of La Chappelle”, quickly became famous, with paleontologists using the limited tools and knowledge of the time envisioning Neanderthals as brutish, hairy, hunchbacked gorilla-like beasts. To this day, many people carry this negative stereotype with popular culture often portraying Neanderthals as bent over and stupid brutes.

However, recent evidence suggests that Neanderthals were anything but stupid. They employed sophisticated tools and complex cultural practices such as ritualistic burials, cave paintings, and symbolistic jewelry. We also now know that Neanderthals walked upright — it’s just that the Old Man of La Chappelle’s slouching posture and bent knees were owed to his poor health. Studies showed the Neanderthal, who was around age 40 at the time of his death about 50,000 years ago, suffered from advanced osteoarthritis.

This is what people thought Neanderthals looked like in the early 20th century. Credit: Public Domain / Research Gate.

In fact, a new study found the Neanderthal man was likely plagued by a range of afflictions, including brucellosis. The disease is still widespread today and is generally acquired when we come in direct contact with an infected animal, typically after eating or drinking some contaminated animal product.

According to Dr. Martin Haeusler, an expert in internal medicine at the University of Zurich and lead author of the new study, this is perhaps the earliest example of a spillover event — a disease or infection that jumped from an animal to a human.  A spillover event is what, for instance, caused the COVID-19 pandemic, after the SARS-CoV-2 virus was transmitted from bats to humans. The dreaded Ebola virus that has been ravaging Africa for decades also originates from bats.

Brucellosis causes fever, muscle pain, night sweats and can last for weeks to years, depending on the severity of infection and availability (or lack thereof) of treatment. More serious symptoms of brucellosis include epididymitis/orchitis, infertility, stillbirths, and abortions. “This could have represented an important aspect of health in Neanderthals, or more generally in Palaeolithic humans,” the researchers wrote in their study.

The researchers figured out the Old Man of La Chappelle must have caught the zoonotic disease when they examined the fossils and concluded not all the deformities in the man’s spinal column and hip joint could be explained by the wear and tear caused by osteoarthritis.

“Rather, we found that some of these pathological changes must be due to inflammatory processes,” Haeusler told CNN.”A comparison of the entire pattern of the pathological changes found in the La Chapelle-aux-Saints skeleton with many different diseases led us then to the diagnosis of brucellosis.”

Previously, evidence of brucellosis was found in Bronze Age human skeletons dating back to around 5,000 years ago, but the new evidence was much older by a significant order of magnitude.

Given the age of the Neanderthal man, the researchers believe he must have had a mild form of the disease, which he likely caught by consuming an infected animal raw. It could have been a wild sheep, goat, reindeer, or bison, all of which were part of the Neanderthal’s diet. It’s very unlikely the disease was caused by eating mammoth or woolly rhinoceros, regularly hunted Paleolithic animals that likely didn’t get brucellosis based on what we know about the living relatives of these extinct species.

In an earlier study published in 2019, Haeusler and colleagues found the Neanderthal man also lost most of his teeth and must have been fed and taken care of by other members of his group, which can be seen as indirect evidence of Neanderthal compassion.

The new findings appeared in the journal Scientific Reports.

Spanish cave paintings confirmed to have been made by the Neanderthals

Neanderthals in Europe weren’t the simple brutes they’re often portrayed as being, a new study suggests. It confirms that red ochre markings found in a Spanish cave were made by the Neanderthals and probably used for a symbolic or ritual purpose for thousands of years.

A general view and a close-up of a partly colored stalagmite tower in Cueva de Ardales. Image credits Africa Pitarch Martí et al., (2021), PNAS.

The Cueva de Ardales cave in Málaga, Spain, is one of the most impressive and well-preserved examples of Paleolithic cave paintings in southwestern Europe. More than a thousand different representations have been found here, indicative of the cave being inhabited by many generations of early humans.

One stalagmite here was painted red ochre thousands of years before the emergence of modern humans in Europe, according to a new paper, and offers us a glimpse into the history and culture of the Neanderthals.

Man-made

It was first suggested that Neanderthals painted this stalagmite red in 2018, when an initial dating of the pigment showed it’s at least 64,800 years old. However, the results were contested, and “a scientific article said that perhaps these pigments were a natural thing,” explained co-author Francesco d’Errico for Agence France-Presse. It proposed that the markings were the result of iron oxide (iron) deposited by water infiltrating into the cave.

The new study shows that the deposition and composition patterns in this pigment are not consistent with natural processes. It was most likely applied through splattering (mixed with water) and blowing (in a powdered form).

Furthermore, the authors explain that pigment was repeatedly applied to the stalagmite over time, at least over ten millennia.

“[The findings] support the hypothesis that the Neanderthals came on several occasions, over several thousand years, to mark the cave with pigments,” said d’Errico, of the University of Bordeaux.

But they were likely not art in the way we understand the term. The markings themselves are different even from the cave art made by our ancestors thousands of years ago. Rather, the authors explain, these markings were “result of graphic behaviors intent on perpetuating the symbolic significance of a space.”

While the markings do seem to have been culturally or symbolically significant, we don’t actually know why, or what they meant. Even so, the study showcases how the Neanderthals were not necessarily as simple as we’ve come to think of them. They were capable of manufacturing and using advanced tools, making art, and using language.

The paper “The symbolic role of the underground world among Middle Paleolithic Neanderthals” has been published in the journal PNAS.

Just how “human” are we? At most, 7% of your DNA is uniquely human, study finds

A landmark study found that only 1.5% to 7% of the human genome contains uniquely (modern) human DNA. The rest is shared with relatives such as Neanderthals and Denisovans.

However, the DNA that is unique to us is pretty important, as it’s related to brain development and function.

Image in public domain.

Researchers used DNA from fossils of our close relatives (Neanderthals and Denisovans) dating from around 40,000-50,000 years ago and compared them with the genome of 279 modern people from around the world. They used a new computational method that allowed them to disentangle the similarities and differences between different DNA with greater detail.

Many people around the world (all non-African populations) still contain genes from Neanderthals, a testament to past interbreeding between the two species. But the importance of this interbreeding may have been understated. The new study found that just 1.5% of humans’ genome is both unique and shared among all people living now, and up to 7% of the human genome is more closely related to that of humans than to that of Neanderthals or Denisovans.

This doesn’t mean that we’re 93% Neanderthal. In fact, just 20% of Neanderthal DNA survives in modern humans, and non-African humans contain just around 1.5-2% Neanderthal DNA. But if you look at different people, they have bits of Neanderthal DNA in different places. So if you add all the parts where someone has Neanderthal DNA, that ends up covering most of the human genome, although it’s not the same for everyone. This 1.5% to 7% uniquely human DNA refers to human-specific tweaks to DNA that are not present in any other species and are strictly unique to Homo sapiens.

In addition, this doesn’t take into account the places where humans gained or lost DNA through other means such as duplication, which could have also played an important role in helping us evolve the way we are today.

What makes us human

The research team was surprised to see just how little DNA is ours and ours alone. But those small areas that make us unique may be crucial.

“We can tell those regions of the genome are highly enriched for genes that have to do with neural development and brain function,” University of California, Santa Cruz computational biologist Richard Green, a co-author of the paper, told AP.

The exact biological function of those bits of DNA remains a major problem to disentangle. Our cells are filled with “junk DNA“, which we don’t really use (or we just don’t understand how our bodies use it yet) — but we still seem to need it. We’re not even sure what the the non-junk DNA bits do. Understanding the full instructions and role that genes have is another massive challenge that’s not yet solved.

What this study seems to suggest is that interbreeding played a much bigger role in our evolutionary history than we thought. Previous archaeological studies also suggest this: humans interbred with Neanderthals, Denisovans, and at least one other mysterious species we haven’t discovered yet (but we carry its DNA). Researchers are finding more and more evidence that these interbreeding events weren’t necessarily isolated exceptions but could have happened multiple times and over a longer period than initially thought. It’s up for future studies to reconcile the archaeological and anthropological evidence with the genetic one.

The study also found that the human-specific mutations seemed to emerge in two distinct bursts: 600,000 years ago and 200,000 years ago, respectively. It’s not clear what triggered these bursts; it could have been an environmental challenge or some other event, which at this point is unknown.

Researchers say that studying this 1.5-7% of our genome could help us better understand Neanderthals and other ancient populations, but it could also help us understand what truly makes us human. For instance, you could set up a laboratory dish experiment where you’d edit out the human-specific genes and revert them back to their Neanderthal function, and compare the molecular results of this change. It wouldn’t exactly be like bringing back a Neanderthal, but it could help us deduct how Neanderthals would have been different from modern humans — or, in counterpart, what makes humans stand out from our closest relatives.

The study “An ancestral recombination graph of human, Neanderthal, and Denisovan genomes” has been published in Science.

Researchers find a previously unknown type of ancient human

More than 120,000 years ago, a mysterious human spent their days hunting and making stone tools in what now Israel. They looked more like Neanderthals and likes like the modern humans who were also living in the region at the time. So who were they? New fossil evidence in Israel is now helping to crack this very intriguing mystery.

Image credit: The researchers

A new player enters the game

“This work shatters the simple picture of modern humans coming out of Africa and Neanderthals living in Europe. The picture is much more complex,” Yossi Zaidner, co-author and researcher of one of the new two papers, told The Guardian. “The idea is what we catch here are the last survivors of a population that contributed to the development of Neanderthals.”

A group of researchers may have identified a previously unknown type of ancient human that lived alongside our species thousands of years ago. They unearthed fossilized bones (a partial skull and a jaw) from an individual near the city of Ramla in Israel, which they argue represents one of the last survivors of a very ancient human group.

The bones have a distinctive combination of Neanderthal and early human features which set them apart from the Homo sapiens that lived in the region at the same time. The researchers have named this newly discovered lineage the “Nesher Ramla Homo type,” which they believe played a previously unknown important role in human history. 

The general picture of Neanderthal evolution had in the past had been linked closely with Europe, as the oldest fossils have been found there. But recent studies have raised doubt on that initial assumption, raising the possibility of a previously unknown mysterious group of extinct humans that shaped the evolution of our heavy-browed relatives.

“The discovery of a new type of Homo is of great scientific importance,” co-author Israel Hershkovitz told ABC. “It enables us to make new sense of previously found human fossils, add another piece to the puzzle of human evolution, and understand the migrations of humans in the old world. The Nesher Ramla people can tell us a fascinating tale.”

An impressive finding

The researchers created digital reconstructions of the fossils and compared them to ancient human remains from Africa, Asia, and Europe. The skull of the newly discovered hominin was thicker and flatter than that of modern humans and Neanderthals, but the jawbone and teeth were similar to both Neanderthals and other ancient fossils.

Image credit: The researchers

The bones were found in a sinkhole that was filled by the time the excavation was done. But in the past, the hole is believed to have contained water and attracted animals, which in turn brought humans who hunted the beasts. The researchers also found stone flakes and points, which date to between 120,000 and 140,000 years old, according to a second paper the researchers published.

“The hominin fossils from Nesher Ramla now suggest that a different population, with anatomical features more archaic than those of both humans and Neanderthals, lived in this region at broadly the same time,” paleoanthropologist Marta Mirazon wrote in a commentary piece. “The interpretation of the Nesher Ramla fossils and stone tools will meet with different reactions among paleoanthropologists.”

The analysis has left the scientists wondering whether other early human bones found in the region could be members of the same group. There’s a debate over the identity of human fossils previously found in the Qesem, Zuttiyehand, and Tabun caves in Israel.

The two papers were published here and here in the journal Science.

Neanderthal milk teeth show their babies were raised and weaned similar to us

A model of Neanderthals at the Vienna Natural History Museum. Credit: Wolfgang Sauber.

Here’s another thing where humans and Neanderthals seem to have the same: child-rearing. According to a new study conducted by an international team of researchers, Neanderthals started to wean their infants at around 6 months of age, which is also when modern humans start introducing solid food in the diets of their children.

Ancient milk teeth and Neanderthal parenting

It seems like with each new study on Neanderthals, the conceptual gaps between our close extinct relatives and Homo sapiens seem increasingly narrower. For instance, Neanderthal artifacts like eagle talon necklaces found in Spain were very similar to jewelry made by humans. Their burial practices also suggest that Neanderthals employed many cultural practices mirroring those of humans.

Now, thanks to geochemical and histological analyses of three Neanderthal milk teeth, scientists have gained new insights into Neanderthal parenting.

“How different Neanderthals are to us is a topic currently under intense debate. These ‘cousins’ of ours are important for understanding our evolution but also our future. Being able to understand Neanderthals’ natural history is one of the most stimulating intellectual challenges,” Federico Lugli and Stefano Benazzi, co-authors of the study from the University of Bologna in Italy, told ZME Science.

Credit: Federico Lugli.

The teeth belonged to three different Neanderthal infants who lived between 70,000 and 45,000 years ago in northeastern Italy, a region that has always been rich in food and natural shelters like caves, making it a Neanderthal hotspot for at least 45,000 years.

Like tree rings, growth lines on teeth are deposited on a year by year and reflect the diet of the children. Using laser-mass spectrometry, the researchers measured strontium concentrations in the dental samples, which showed Neanderthals started introducing solid food in their children’s diets at around 5-6 months of age.

“Studies on Neanderthals’ early infancy are few, and they mainly deal with morphology and not with behavior. Our research sheds light on the understanding of how Neanderthal children grew up and how they were fed. Our study highlights a weaning pattern very similar to Homo sapiens and demonstrates once again how much Neanderthals are so similar and yet so different from us,” the researchers told ZME Science.

Across all human cultures, children are weaned at around 6 months of age. Around this time, mother’s milk alone is not enough to supply an infant’s calorie requirements for the growing human brain.

Neanderthal’s metabolic constraints and early development have always been a matter of contention among scholars. The new findings tip the balance of the debate towards more similarities with humans, suggesting that Neanderthal newborns probably had a similar weight to modern human babies. Neanderthal mothers may have also had a similar gestational history and development to human mothers. Previously, a study by researchers at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, found that Neanderthal children were fully weaned after the age of two.

“We have already started working on other archaeological contexts to broaden our knowledge of a hidden part of the fossil record, which is the little-known world of Neanderthal children and their mothers. Still, we will apply our methodologies on other fossil and even contemporary humans, actively searching for discrepancies or similarities in parental care and mother-child relationship,” the Italian researchers said.

The findings appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Humans, not Neanderthals created oldest modern artifacts in Europe

New studies suggest that humans and Neanderthals co-existed together for far longer than was previously thought.

Stone artifacts from the Initial Upper Paleolithic at Bacho Kiro Cave. 1-3, 5-7: Pointed blades and fragments from Layer I; 4: Sandstone bead with morphology similar to bone beads; 8: The longest complete blade. Credit: Tsenka Tsanova, MPI-EVA Leipzig.

When archaeologists first excavated the Bacho Kiro cave in Bulgaria, they knew they found a valuable trove. Blade-like tools and animal tooth pendants, some preserved in excellent condition. The tools dated to the Upper Paleolithic, some 46,000 years ago.

Initially, archaeologists thought the Neanderthals were responsible. It made a lot of sense: Neanderthals had left stone tools in the same cave 50,000 years ago. But according to a new study, this isn’t really the case. Instead, the artifacts were built by Homo sapiens — which is significant for several reasons.

First of all, it’s the earliest known evidence from a member of our species in Europe. Secondly, it shows that humans and Neanderthals must have overlapped for several millennia, likely influencing each other and quite possibly mating with each other.

“Our findings link the expansion of what were then advanced technologies, such as blade tools and pendants made from teeth and bone, with the spread of Homo sapiens more than 45,000 years ago,” explains Shara Bailey, a professor in NYU’s Department of Anthropology and one of the paper’s co-authors. “This confirms that Homo sapiens were mostly responsible for these ‘modern’ creations and that similarities between these and other sites in which Neanderthals made similar things are due to interaction between the populations.”

Excavations in Initial Upper Paleolithic Layer I at Bacho Kiro Cave (Bulgaria). Four Homo sapiens bones were recovered from this layer along with a rich stone tool assemblage, animal bones, bone tools, and pendants. Credit: Tsenka Tsanova.

To figure out who create these tools, researchers did a bit of detective worth. First, Bailey and her colleagues examined the teeth and bone fragments, dating them to at least 45,000 years ago — a period when multiple waves of Homo sapiens were thought to migrate towards Europe.

Then, other researchers analyzed the shape of the tooth and carried a DNA analysis of the fragments, determining that they belonged to Homo sapiens and not Neanderthals.

This strongly suggests that the artifacts were made by humans, or at the very least, that humans were present at the site. Since Neanderthals didn’t vanish from the area until about 40,000 years ago, the two species overlapped for several millennia — a theory supported by DNA studies which have shown that the two mated on several occasions. However, bones of Homo sapiens in Europe are so scarce that establishing an overlap has proven to be very difficult.

Journal References:

Initial Upper Palaeolithic Homo sapiens from Bacho Kiro Cave, Bulgaria, Nature (2020). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2259-z , www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-2259-z

A 14C chronology for the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition at Bacho Kiro Cave, Bulgaria, Nature Ecology & Evolution, DOI: 10.1038/s41559-020-1136-3 , www.nature.com/articles/s41559-020-1136-3

Ancient fragments of twisted fibers show Neanderthals grasped math and had a materialistic culture

Credit: Paul Hudson, Flickr.

The mental imagery of sluggish brutes regarding the Neanderthals has proven itself heavily distorted from reality. The latest findings that show our extinct cousins were capable of remarkable cognitive abilities come from the site of Abri du Maras, in France, where scientists have found fragments of twisted fiber between 41,000 to 52,000 years old that were fashioned by Neanderthals.

The study, which was published in the journal Scientific Reports, shows that Neanderthals mastered fiber technology and likely grasped basic mathematics judging from the patterning of the yarn and cords.

Discovering tools this old is a huge achievement in and of itself. Much of what we know about Middle Paleolithic culture comes from bones and stone tools since these are the only things that can typically last for so long before becoming degraded to oblivion.

The team of researchers, led by Bruce Hardy, a professor of anthropology at Kenyon College, Ohio, excavated multiple collapsed caves at the French site. They eventually came across a 60-mm-long Levallois flake — a stone tool made with the earliest core preparation and flake removal technology known to us — with adhering cord fragments.

“The flake was recovered in situ with the cord adhering to its inferior surface and was covered by sediment and breccia, demonstrating that the cord is at least contemporary with the deposition and burial of the flake and is therefore Middle Paleolithic in origin.,” the authors wrote in their study.

(a) SEM photo of cord fragment, (b) 3D Hirox photo of cord fragment, (c) schematic drawing illustrating s and Z twist; (d) enlarged Hirox photo with cord structure highlighted, arrows indicate location of photos e and f; (e) SEM photo of bordered pits (circled in red); (f) SEM photo of bordered pits. Credit: Drawing by C. Kerfant.

Upon examination, the researchers found that the ancient cord is comprised of 3 bundles of fibers in an S-twist, which were then plied together with a Z-twist to form a 3-ply cord.

In effect, this is the earliest evidence of spinning yarn from natural fibers found thus far. It implies that Neanderthals were more than capable of manufacturing advanced tools. Although it’s not clear how Neanderthals used fiber technology, the researchers assume that Neanderthals employed such materials to fashion anything from bags to fishing nets and baskets.

The fibers seem to be derived from bark, which also suggests that Neanderthals understood the seasonality of conifer tree growth.

SEM closeup of one of the Neanderthal cords found at the French site. Credit: Moncel.

Most importantly, the fiber fragments point to a basic understanding of math. To turn fibers into yarn and yarn into cord, the manufacturer has to understand how to combine various fibers, which can be seen as akin to combinations of pairs and sets of numbers in mathematics. A cord made out of three individual fibers is stronger than one made out of two, and the Neanderthals seemed to have understood this very well.

“These impressions reveal weaving technology and the production of textiles. The complexity of the textiles suggests that they are part of a well-established tradition that began much earlier,” the authors wrote.

Excavations at the Abri du Maras site are still ongoing, and the researchers are close to reaching a 90,000-year-old sediment layer. Perhaps even more striking artifacts and examples of ancient Neanderthal behavior might surface from the digs.

European Neanderthals feasted on fresh seafood, boosting their brain

The more we look, the more we find evidence that the Neanderthals were similar to modern humans. In the latest study, researchers found evidence that at least some groups of Neanderthals might have not feasted on mammoth steak — instead preferring fresh shark or dolphin.

Surf and turf

Neanderthals lived at the Figueira Brava site in Portugal between 86,000 and 106,000 years ago. They had a varied lifestyle, hunting, gathering, but also relying on the sea for sustenance.

Archaeologists working at the site have found evidence that Neanderthals were consuming fish, birds, and mammals. As the excavation progressed, researchers found more and more evidence that the Neanderthal’s seafood diet was rich and varied.

“Figueira Brava provides the first record of significant marine resource consumption among Europe’s Neanderthals,” the researchers wrote in the study.

They found evidence that Neanderthals were consuming limpet, mussels, clams, brown crabs, spider crabs, sharks, eels, sea breams, mullets, even dolphins and seals. They also hunted marine birds such as mallards, common scoters (a large sea duck), geese, cormorants, gannets, shags, auks, egrets and loons. Meanwhile, on land, they hunted red deer, goats, horses, tortoises and aurochs, an extinct wild ox. To supplement their diet, they used olive and fig trees as well as pine nuts taken from pine trees.

Patella vulgata shells (the largest is 5 cm across) from Area F (left top and bottom, units IH4 and IH6, respectively; right, unit IH8).

This is a far cry from the image we typically have about Neanderthals — that they lived in cold environments, hunting mammoths to survive. The Figueira Brava site shows a completely different picture, of sophisticated hunter-gatherer societies.

The finding of seafood is also particularly intriguing. Several anthropologists support a theory that the brain-boosting fatty acids found in seafood enhanced our ancestors’ cognitive abilities.

This suggests that if this is indeed the case, it wasn’t our advantage alone — Neanderthals also did it.

“If this common consumption of marine resources played an important role in the development of cognitive skills, it did so on the entire humanity, including Neanderthals, and not only the African population that spread later,” said João Zilhão, study author and Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies researcher at the University of Barcelona.

The first evidence that humans used marine resources dates to around 160,000 years ago, in Southern Africa.

There was another significant finding at the site, Zilhão and colleagues claim: middens. Essentially, an organized dump structure. This is a very significant find because it would suggest that Neanderthals were organized and structured in their behavior.

At any rate, time and time again, Neanderthals show us that the image of Neanderthals as brutes is strongly unjustified — they were every bit as sophisticated and intelligent as humans, if not more.

The study has been published in Science.

‘Flower burial’ cave offers new insight into Neanderthal death rites

Scientists have recently described the first articulated Neanderthal skeleton to come out of the ground in over two decades. The fossils were unearthed from one of the most important archaeological sites of the 20th century: Shanidar cave, in the foothills of a Kurdistan area of northern Iraq. The authors believe that the new findings could provide valuable insight into the mortuary practices of our extinct cousins.

Shanidar cave and the Neanderthal ‘flower burial’

In the 1950s, archaeologist Ralph Solecki, along with colleagues at Columbia University and Kurdish workers, unearthed the fossilized bones of eight adult and two infant Neanderthals at a site known as the Shanidar cave, in the Kurdistan area of northern Iraq. This discovery changed our understanding of Neanderthals forever

Prior to Shanidar, it was generally thought that Neanderthals more closely resembled apes — with stooped posture and bent knees — rather than modern humans. 

However, Solecki’s work on the Shanidar skeletons, which looked at burials from 65,000 to 35,000 years ago, suggested that Neanderthals walked upright and employed sophisticated cultural practices. For instance, pollen found in one of the graves indicated that flowers had been buried alongside the Neanderthal dead, a practice that until then had been thought to be exclusive to Homo sapiens.

“Someone in the last Ice Age,” Solecki wrote, “must have ranged the mountainside in the mournful task of collecting flowers for the dead.”

“It seems logical to us today that pretty things like flowers should be placed with the cherished dead, but to find flowers in a Neanderthal burial that took place about 60,000 years ago is another matter,” he added.

The rare discovery ushered in a new way of thinking about Neanderthals — but not everyone was convinced. Some questioned whether the pollen was part of a flower offering, while others were skeptical of the fact that Neanderthals even buried their dead in the first place. But, the only way to settle these kinds of debates is with evidence.

Credit: Antiquity.

More than 50 years after the initial Shanidar discovery, researchers have returned to the cave and reopened the trench where the first Neanderthal skeletons were found.

The first digs began in 2014, but stopped only two days later because ISIS was getting dangerously close to the archeological site. Exvacations resumed in the following year.

Neanderthal complete skull, flattened by thousands of years of sediment. Credit: Graeme Barker.

In 2016, researchers at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology found a rib emerging from the wall of the deepest part of the Shanidar trench. A lumbar vertebra and the bones of a clenched right hand soon followed. Excavations in 2018 and 2019 led to the unearthing of a complete skull and the upper body bones almost to the waist — the left hand was curled under the head like a small cushion.

The bones of the Neanderthal’s left hand emerging from the sediment in Shanidar Cave. Credit: Graeme Barker.

“It was so exciting to see this emerge, and quite touching to see the hand – it gives you a sense of being close to someone who was so separate in time and space, and even a different species some might say, and yet at the same time very like us,” Dr. Emma Pomeroy, from Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology and lead author of the new study, told ZME Science in an email.

“We hadn’t been able to tell it [the skull] was there when we first saw the remains in the trench wall, and it took some time to excavate all the layers above so that we could reveal the remains in plan. The edge of the right eye socket was the first part to be exposed, and immediately I knew it was part of the skull, meaning there was much more to this individual than we had originally seen from what was sticking out of the trench wall. It was unbelievably exciting – I never imagined I would work on anything like this! Even the first time seeing the cave was a memorable moment for me. I had read and heard so much about it as a student and never dreamed I would get to visit it, let alone excavate Neanderthal remains there!”

Reconstruction of the possible burial position of the recently found Neanderthal remains, the stone behind the head is shown in grey. Credit: E. Pomeroy / Antiquity Publications Ltd.

Flowers for Neanderthals

Unfortunately, Solecki died last year at the venerable age of 101. Although he offered all his support and blessings, Solecki had never managed to conduct further excavations himself at the famous site.

In a new study published in the journal Antiquity, researchers have described the new Neanderthal skeleton, which might offer additional insights into the extinct hominin’s burial practices in the future.

“This skeleton is directly adjacent to where Ralph Solecki’s famous Shanidar 4 ‘flower burial’ was found, and indeed it seems that the lower part of the body of the new Neanderthal was removed when Shanidar 4’s skeleton was recovered in a block of sediment by Solecki’s team in 1960, since they didn’t realise this new individual was there. At the time, they also didn’t realise the extent of the remains they had cut through, and they never had the opportunity to return to the site and re-investigate what they left behind,” Pomeroy told ZME Science in an e-mail.

“This find is incredibly important and exciting for a number of reasons. It’s rare that such complete, articulated (i.e. with bones in correct anatomical connection) Neanderthal skeletal remains are found – this is the first to our knowledge in 25 years,” she added.

The Neanderthal skeleton, dubbed Shanidar Z, is now being investigated in labs at Cambridge, under a loan from the Kurdish Regional Government. Researchers are currently scanning the skeleton encased in sediment thousands of years old in order to generate a digital reconstruction.

Researchers are also studying the sediment samples, whose dating suggests that Shanidar Z is over 70,000 years old, looking for signs of climate change in the shells and bones of ancient mice and snails trapped in the same layer as the Neanderthal skeleton. Traces of pollen and charcoal would be particularly interesting to find as these could offer more insights into the Neanderthal “flower burial”. Shanidar Z’s sex could not be determined.

“There are long-standing debates about how Neanderthals treated their dead and we will be able to significantly contribute to our knowledge of such behaviour by looking at the microscopic structure of the sediments to find evidence for whether the depression in which the individual was found was natural or intentionally dug; whether the body was quickly covered in soil or left exposed for a period of time; and whether plants (leaves, flowers, pollen) were included with the body. All this will give us valuable new information about how Neanderthals treated their dead, and clues as to what their attitudes to the dead may have been,” Pomeroy said.

“Our evidence strongly indicates that the remains were placed in an intentionally dug depression or scoop (probably that enhanced a natural channel or depression), and was filled relatively quickly with a distinct sediment from that in the layers underneath. We also have evidence that ancient plant remains are contained within the sediments around the bones, which is exciting as this has relevance for re-evaluating the possibility that plants (leaves or flowers) were placed with the body, or perhaps used to cover it over, and of course has relevance for re-evaluating the famous ‘flower burial’ that was found right next to Shanidar Z. It will also add important evidence to our understanding of how Neanderthal treatment of the dead varied over time and space, and whether this may have had a symbolic or ritual component, rather than being purely practical in nature.”

The original excavations of the ten Neanderthal partial skeletons from Shanidar cave during the 1960s suggested that multiple individuals had been buried together in graves, alongside flowers and plant material. However, precisely where the individuals lay in relation with each other, as well as the significance of the controversial pollen grains (which some say could be modern contamination), have been the subjects of heated debates among scholars.

However, the new findings help cement the notion that Neanderthals truly employed organized and cultural practices when depositing their dead. For instance, these recent excavations have revealed that some of the bodies had been laid in a channel in the cave’s floor initially carved by water but later intentionally dug to make it deeper.

“We have been able to provide evidence that a scoop was dug in which to place the new individual, and that there are ancient plant remains in the sediments around the bones. Further analyses will enable us to tell whether the plant remains are only found with the bones, suggesting some kind of special use of plants, or whether they are more common elsewhere in the cave,” Pomeroy said.

“We also have the possibility that stones were used to mark where the bodies were, and for Neanderthals returning multiple times to deposit their dead in the exact same spot. All this evidence will contribute to our understanding of the detail and complexity of Neanderthal treatment of the dead, what such behaviour might tell us about their cognitive abilities and understanding of the landscape, and how treatment of the dead may have varied across space and time (perhaps indicating different cultural traditions, another very human trait).”

In the future, the researchers plan on continuing conserving and digitally reconstructing all of the fossils they retrieved from Kurdistan. The ultimate goal, however, is to extract ancient DNA from the bones retrieved from a region where interbreeding very likely took place with modern humans wandering out of Africa. Meanwhile, excavations at the site will continue as long as funding permits.

These findings join a number of recent studies that suggest Neanderthals weren’t mindless brutes, as some believed when the species was first being described, but rather sophisticated and resourceful people. For instance, Spanish researchers found that Neanderthals fashioned necklaces out of eagle talons and created spectacular red or black cave paintings depicting animals, dots and geometric signs, as well as hand stencils, handprints, and engravings.

“What’s exciting is that it’s rare to find articulated Neanderthal remains in the ground, so this is a very uncommon opportunity to use all the modern scientific techniques we have to understand behaviour as fully as possible. Many debates around Neanderthal mortuary behaviour, and whether it was ritual or symbolic, rely on older excavations from a time when methods and knowledge were different from today. And so there is a limit to how confident our interpretations of this older evidence can be as some information we may want today was just not available or recorded,” Pomeroy said.

“What this work gets to the heart of is how and when we became human. Ritual treatment of the dead can indicate feelings of loss, compassion for the dead, and perhaps a more spiritual understanding of the world like that we see across many human cultures, but discovering the origins of these behaviours is quite elusive. But new evidence such as the data from Shanidar Cave can help us get closer to understanding these big questions.”

Neanderthal cave painting

Neanderthal teeth could chomp on hard plants like nuts and seeds

Although research suggests that Neanderthals ate mostly meat, our extinct cousins had a formidable jaw structure that should have enabled them to process a variety of foods. Now, a new study has significant evidence pointing to the fact that Neanderthals, as well as other early hominins, likely consumed nutritious hard plans like seeds and nuts without suffering structural damage to their teeth.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In order to tell what kind of foods our early ancestors could have consumed safely, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis first ran a test involving primate teeth in the lab. The aim of this experiment was to see what kind of impact various foods might have on the teeth’s enamel microscopic structures.

“We found that hard plant tissues such as the shells of nuts and seeds barely influence microwear textures on teeth,” Adam van Casteren, lecturer in biological anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, said in a press release. “If teeth don’t demonstrate elaborate pits and scars, this doesn’t necessarily rule out the consumption of hard food items.”

During one such test, a seed shell attached to a probe was dragged across the enamel from an orangutan tooth. This motion replicated the kind of forces exerted by chewing. Four different types of food particles were attached to the probe. And, in the end, neither produced significant dental microwear, such as scratches, fractures, or pits, the authors reported in the journal Scientific Reports.

Previously, researchers had performed mechanical tests on primate teeth, but this was the first time that actual hard food particles were used to measure any damage they might have caused.

Combined with previous assessments of Neanderthals’ sturdy jaws, the new findings suggest that our close human relatives and other early hominins would have been more than equipped to chew large amounts of nuts and seeds without threatening the structural integrity of their molars.

“When consuming many very small hard seeds, large bite forces are likely to be required to mill all the grains,” van Casteren said. “In the light of our new findings, it is plausible that small, hard objects like grass seeds or sedge nutlets were a dietary resource for early hominins.”

This all makes sense since early hominin craniodental morphologies evolved before the advent of cooking or sophisticated food processing. In other words, back in the day, most food at our early ancestors could hunt or forage was pretty tough to chew. Individuals who could chew on hard plants without losing their teeth would have been favored by natural selection.

This information is useful for anthropologists who are left with only fossils to try to reconstruct ancient diets.

“Our approach is not to look for correlations between the types of microscopic marks on teeth and foods being eaten — but instead to understand the underlying mechanics of how these scars on tooth surface are formed,” van Casteren said. “If we can fathom these fundamental concepts, we can generate more accurate pictures of what fossil hominins were eating.”

Last week, a different study concluded that Neanderthals dived under the ocean for shells that they fashioned into tools. The shells were modified to be used as scrapers and were more efficient than thin flinty rocks, which can’t sustain a sharp edge. It’s possible that they also used their hard teeth and jaws to manipulate the shells in the tool manufacturing process.

Neanderthal demise may have been due to human-borne diseases

Neanderthal man. Credit: Flickr.

Our extinct cousins, the Neanderthals, seem to have been just as intelligent, resourceful, and culturally sophisticated as modern humans during the paleolithic era. About 40,000 years ago, their species abruptly disappeared while Homo sapiens went on to not only survive but flourish.

What could have caused the Neanderthals to disappear? Were they ill-adapted for climate change? Did competition for resources with humans drive them to extinction? Research suggests that both climate change and competition may have played an important part in the Neanderthals’ demise — and a new study suggests that disease transmission from humans sealed their fate.

Based on archaeological evidence, researchers believe that Neanderthals and modern humans first made contact around 130,000 years ago in the Levant, an Eastern Mediterranean region.

This means that the two species coexisted for thousands of years. In fact, there is ample evidence of interbreeding, and even today most people of non-Sub-Saharan heritage have up to 4% Neanderthal DNA. But, if that’s the case, why did Neanderthals eventually go extinct?

Gill Greenbaum and colleagues at Stanford believe that the key to answering such a question lies in disease transmission patterns.

“Our research suggests that diseases may have played a more important role in the extinction of the Neanderthals than previously thought. They may even be the main reason why modern humans are now the only human group left on the planet,” said Greenbaum, who is the first author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher in Stanford’s Department of Biology.

Disease transmission between different populations that had been isolated from one another flows both ways since each population has adapted immunity to distinct pathogens. Greenbaum’s team employed a mathematical model of disease transmission and gene flow that showed that disease exchange between the two species must have created a narrow contact zone in the Levant. This disease barrier must have kept the two species in check for thousands of years, preventing both humans and Neanderthals from venturing too far into each others’ territory.

This stalemate couldn’t last forever, and what eventually gave humans an edge may have been interbreeding. Hybrids born out of the union of the two species likely carried immune-related genes from both humans and Neanderthals. In time, the disease burden or risk of infection with both groups gradually lifted, allowing modern humans with Neanderthal DNA to venture far beyond the Levant, into fresh Neanderthal territory which our species had no previous contact with.

Once this disease burden threshold was crossed, perhaps other advantages that humans had over the Neanderthals — such as more sophisticated weapons and social structure — became overpowering.

Credit: Vivian Chen Wong.

Greenbaum also argues that our ancestors also carried a greater disease burden. Since humans came from Africa, they must have carried a suite of tropical diseases that were likely deadlier, more diverse, and more numerous than those carried by Neanderthals, which had adapted to diseases in the temperate region.

Employing a new mathematical model, the researchers showed that even slight differences in disease burden between the two groups would result in compound growth over time.

“It could be that by the time modern humans were almost entirely released from the added burden of Neanderthal diseases, Neanderthals were still very much vulnerable to modern human diseases,” Greenbaum said. “Moreover, as modern humans expanded deeper into Eurasia, they would have encountered Neanderthal populations that did not receive any protective immune genes via hybridization.”

Disease transmission can easily decimate populations, as evidenced by the numerous plagues that have killed millions in fairly recent history. Then there’s the case of Europeans who, although they arrived in feeble number in the Americas in the 15th and 16th-century, simply wiped out local populations that didn’t have enough time to adapt to the invasive pathogens brought from overseas.

But, although Greenbaum’s theory is highly plausible, it needs to be supported by evidence. The scientist hopes to find some in the archaeological record.

“We predict, for example, that Neanderthal and modern human population densities in the Levant during the time period when they coexisted will be lower relative to what they were before and relative to other regions,” Greenbaum said.

The findings appeared in the journal Nature Communications.

“The last necklace made by the Neanderthals” included eagle talons and is teaching us about our ancient cousins

A new study reports on the first discovery of eagle talons being used as ornaments by Neanderthals in the Iberian Peninsula (today’s Spain).

Imperial eagle falange with cut marks from Cave Foradada.
Image credits Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo.

Eagle talons are considered to be one of the first (if not the first) elements that Neanderthals used to make jewelry from. The practice was documented to be quite common and widespread throughout Southern Europe, based on archeological evidence from between 120,000 and 40,000 years ago.

Researchers have now found evidence of the same practice in the Iberian Peninsula, at the Foradada cave in Calafell, Spain. This is the most recent piece of its kind found, and the first one to be discovered in the region. The findings show that the Neanderthal practice of using of eagle talons in jewelry was much more widespread (both geographically and through historical time) than previously assumed.

Among the last of its kind

“Neanderthals used eagle talons as symbolic elements, probably as necklace pendants, from the beginnings of the mid Palaeolithic”, notes Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo, a researcher at the Institute of Evolution in Africa (IDEA) and the study’s lead author.

At the site, researchers unearthed the left leg bones of a Spanish Imperial Eagle (Aquila Adalberti) from 39,000 years ago. Marks on the bones suggest that the bird was retrieved and processed with the intent of making pendants, as the marks are indicative of efforts to remove the talons. By the looks of the marks, and analogy regarding remains from different prehistorical sites and ethnographic documentation, researchers determined that the animal was not manipulated for consumption but for symbolic reasons.

The findings correspond to the châtelperronian culture, typically-seen in the last Neanderthal groups in Europe. The châtelperronian culture was in full swing as our ancient cousins made contact with modern humans moving in from Africa and the Middle East. Juan Ignacio Morales, a researcher in the program Juan de la Cierva affiliated at SERP and signer of the article, presents this use of eagle talons as ornaments could have been a cultural transmission from the Neanderthals to modern humans, who adopted this practice after reaching Europe.

Eagle talons are the oldest ornamental items discovered so far in Europe. The team explains that they’re older even than the seashells modern humans (perforated and) wore while still inhabiting Africa. The current study deals with the most modern such talon piece from the Iberian Peninsula — where the last Neanderthals in Europe lived. To the best of our knowledge, this is “the last necklace made by the Neanderthals”, according to Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo.

The paper “The Châtelperronian Neanderthals of Cova Foradada (Calafell, Spain) used imperial eagle phalanges for symbolic purposes” has been published in the journal Science Advances.

Humans figured out how to start fires way sooner than expected

Let’s be honest for a second here — we say humans ‘mastered’ fire, but most of us wouldn’t be able to light something up without some matches to save our lives.

Image credits Gerd Altmann.

It’s understandable, then, for researchers to assume that early humans likely harvested (instead of starting) fires. However, the ability to harness fire was a key developmental step for our species, enabling us to cook, protect ourselves from wildlife, or just by making the cave a more enjoyable place to hang around in. As such, archeologists are very keen (and eager to debate on) when exactly we learned to start fires.

New research from an international team now reports that Neanderthals, one of our ancient (and now extinct) relative species knew how to produce fire, overturning our previous assumptions.

Baby light my fire

“Fire was presumed to be the domain of Homo sapiens but now we know that other ancient humans like Neanderthals could create it,” says co-author Daniel Adler, associate professor in anthropology at the University of Connecticut (UConn). “So perhaps we are not so special after all.”

The team drew on hydrocarbon and chemical isotope analysis, archeological evidence of fire use, and models of the Earth’s climate tens of thousands of years ago to show that our ancient cousins did indeed know how to light a fire. The study focused on the Lusakert Cave 1 in the Armenian Highlands.

The team analyzed sediment samples to determine the level of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) — compounds that are released by burning organic materials. Light PAHs disperse widely, the team explains, and are indicative of wildfires. Heavy PAHs, on the other hand, spread narrowly around a source of fire.

“Looking at the markers for fires that are locally made, we start to see other human activity correlating with more evidence of locally-made fire,” says lead author Alex Brittingham, a UConn doctoral student in anthropology.

Higher levels of heavy PAHs at the site (which indicate regular fire use) correlate with evidence of increased human occupation (such as dumps of animal bones from meals) and of tool making, the team explains.

In order to rule out the possibility that these fires started naturally (for example, following lightning strikes), the team analyzed hydrogen and carbon isotope ratios in plant waxes preserved in sediment from those ancient days. This step is useful for recreating the kind of climate the plants grew in, the team reports. All in all, they didn’t find any link between the paleoclimatic conditions at the time and the chemical evidence left over by the fires. The inhabitants were not living in drier, wildfire-prone conditions while they were utilizing fires within the cave.

“In order to routinely access naturally caused fires, there would need to have been conditions that would produce lighting strikes at a relative frequency that could have ignited wildfires,” says Michael Hren, study author and associate professor of geosciences.

In fact, the team reports that there were fewer wildfires going on in the area while humans inhabited the cave (light PAH frequency was low while heavy PAH frequency in the cave was high). This finding suggests that the Neanderthals acted as a kind of fire control in the area they inhabited, intentionally or not. It also shows they were able to control (i.e. start) fire without having to rely on natural wildfires.

The team now plans to expand their research to other caves occupied by early humans, to determine whether different groups learned to control fire independently of people in other geographic areas. In other words, was it something that only certain groups figured out, or more wide-spread knowledge?

The paper “Geochemical Evidence for the Control of Fire by Middle Palaeolithic Hominins” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Here’s what the Denisovans might have looked like

Researchers have used patterns of methylation in ancient Denisovan DNA to predict their anatomical features.

This image shows a preliminary portrait of a young female Denisovan based on a skeletal profile reconstructed from ancient DNA methylation maps. Image credits: Maayan Harel.

The entire collection of Denisovan fossils features a pinky bone, three teeth, and a lower jaw — that’s it. From all that, we not only know that they were a distinct species, but we can also figure out some intriguing aspects about them.

Denisovans are a group of archaic humans in the genus Homo, alongside ourselves and the Neanderthals. A decade ago, we didn’t even know about their existence, until small fragments were discovered in the Denisova cave in Siberia (hence the name Denisovans). Since then, we’ve learned quite a bit about them, although in the grand scheme of things, they still remain a mysterious group.

They lived alongside humans and Neanderthals, interbreeding with both groups, even breeding with the ancestors of some modern groups. For instance, it’s estimated that three to five percent of the DNA of Melanesians and Aboriginal Australians comes from Denisovans.

However, we still have very little idea as to what they looked like.

To shed new light on that issue, researchers used a technique called DNA methylation, which has been used before to suggest anatomical features (and the evolution of such features) in groups of humans.

Quite human. Another predicted portrait of a Denisovan. Image credits:Maayan Harel

Essentially, DNA methylation is a process by which methyl groups are added to the DNA molecule. This changes the activity of the DNA strand without actually changing its structure. From that shifting gene activity, epigenetic patterns can be inferred, and these patterns are then traced back to anatomical features. Using this approach, researchers were able to identify 56 anatomical features in which Denisovans differed from modern humans and/or Neanderthals — in other words, 56 features unique to the Denisovans.

For instance, their skull appears to be wider than that of both humans and Neanderthals, and they also had a longer dental arch.

“We provide the first reconstruction of the skeletal anatomy of Denisovans,” says author Liran Carmel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “In many ways, Denisovans resembled Neanderthals, but in some traits, they resembled us, and in others they were unique.”

“By doing so, we can get a prediction as to what skeletal parts are affected by differential regulation of each gene and in what direction that skeletal part would change–for example, a longer or shorter femur,” added first author David Gokhman.

Image credits: Maayan Harel.

While the method isn’t exactly a perfect predictor, it’s a pretty good approximation. In order to check their findings, the team first compared traits of Neanderthals with those of chimpanzees. They found that roughly 85% of the trait reconstructions were accurate in predicting which traits diverged and in which direction they diverged. Furthermore, while the research paper was in review, another study came out describing a Denisovan mandible — and it fit the prediction.

But while this is helping us make the first steps in truly understanding the ancient group, it may also teach us a bit about ourselves. We only have a general idea about where the Denisovans lived, and little information about what their lifestyle was actually like. The environmental pressure and their reactive adaptations could show us what made us a species survive when our closest relatives didn’t.

“Studying Denisovan anatomy can teach us about human adaptation, evolutionary constraints, development, gene-environment interactions, and disease dynamics,” Carmel says. “At a more general level, this work is a step towards being able to infer an individual’s anatomy based on their DNA.”

Journal Reference: Cell, Gokhman et al.: “Reconstructing Denisovan Anatomy Using DNA Methylation Maps” https://www.cell.com/cell/fulltext/S0092-8674(19)30954-7

Many Neanderthals had ‘swimmer’s ear’

A Neanderthal skull with external auditory exostoses (“swimmer’s ear” growths) in the left canal. Credit: Erik Trinkaus.

Researchers examined the ear canals of ancient humans, including early modern humans and Neanderthals, finding abnormal bony growths were common among Neanderthals. This condition is known as “swimmer’s ear” and is mostly caused by habitual exposure to cold water or air.

Swimmer’s ear, or acute diffuse external otitis, usually occurs when bacteria from water infect the ear. If the condition is left untreated, dense bony growths can protrude into the ear canal.

This feature has been documented in ancient humans before, but it’s only recently that Erik Trinkaus and colleagues at Washington University investigated how ‘swimmer’s ear’ might reveal insights into the lifestyles of our ancestors.

For their study, Trinkaus and colleagues examined the preserved ear canals belonging to 77 ancient humans from the Middle to Late Pleistocene Epoch in western Eurasia.

The researchers found that early modern humans exhibited a similar incidence of external auditory exostoses (bony growths in the ear canal) to modern humans.

However, ‘swimmer’s ear’ was exceptionally common among Neanderthals — about half of the 23 Neanderthals included in the study exhibited mild to severe exostoses.

Writing in the journal PLoS ONE, the authors say that multiple factors may explain the high abundance of exostoses, including the environment and genetics.

“An exceptionally high frequency of external auditory exostoses (bony growths in the ear canal; “swimmer’s ear”) among the Neandertals, and a more modest level among high latitude earlier Upper Paleolithic modern humans, indicate a higher frequency of aquatic resource exploitation among both groups of humans than is suggested by the archeological record. In particular, it reinforces the foraging abilities and resource diversity of the Neandertals,” Trinkaus said in a statement.

Oldest human skull out of Africa forces us to rethink migration timeline

A human skull dating from 210,000 years ago has been shown to be human. The skull was discovered in a Greek cave in the 1970s but was then classified as Neanderthal. A new analysis showed that it is indeed human — and its timeline is absolutely puzzling.

The Apidima 2 cranium (right) and its reconstruction (left). Apidima 2 does belong to a Neanderthal. Image credits: Katerina Harvati, Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen.

It’s easy to understand why the Apidima Cave in Greece was seen as a refuge for ancient humans. Located in southern Greece, it probably offered provided a more stable and warmer climate than most other places, with plenty of water and feeding opportunities around it. Undoubtedly, numerous humans took shelter in the area, though most of them passed without leaving behind a single (archaeological) trail. Two individuals, however, did.

Two fossilized human crania (Apidima 1 and Apidima 2) from Apidima Cave, were discovered in the late 1970s. However, the study of these fossils proved to be extremely challenging. Not only were the skulls broken and fragmented, but up until the 1990s, it was impossible to extract them from the surrounding rock matrix. Even after they were extracted, their analysis remained difficult.

Initially, scientists thought them to be Neanderthal.

Now, an international team of researchers used state-of-the-art computer modeling and uranium dating to re-examine the two skulls. They found that one of them, dating from 170,000 years ago is indeed Neanderthal. But the other one yielded a massive surprise: not only was it 40,000 years older than the other one, but it belonged to a Homo sapiens — not a Neanderthal.

This would make it the oldest out-of-Africa human skull ever discovered.

The Apidima 1 partial cranium (right) and its reconstruction from posterior view (middle) and side view (left). Image credits: Katerina Harvati, Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen.

This is more than just a quirk of history — it puts a new, unexpected constraint on the “Out of Africa” theory, the dominant model of early migration of anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens).

“It shows that the early dispersal of Homo sapiens out of Africa not only occurred earlier, before 200,000 years ago, but also reached further geographically, all the way to Europe,” Katerina Harvati, a palaeoanthropologist at the Eberhard Karls University of Tuebingen, Germany, told AFP.

“This is something that we did not suspect before, and which has implications for the population movements of these ancient groups,” she added.

It’s generally believed that hominins, a subset of great apes that includes Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, emerged in Africa more than six million years ago. They gradually migrated away from the continent — not at once, but in several migration episodes starting two million years ago. Some 45,000 years ago, Homo sapiens emerged from out of Africa, establishing its dominance and gradually replacing Neanderthals (with episodes of mixing and interbreeding).

The Out Of Africa theory suggests that humans gradually replaced Neanderthals. Image via Wikipedia.

This old skull suggests that an earlier migration also happened way before this timeline, and the overall migration might have happened in multiple waves rather than one big gradual one.

“Rather than a single exit of hominins from Africa to populate Eurasia, there must have been several dispersals, some of which did not result in permanent occupations,” said Eric Delson, a professor of anthropology at City University of New York, who was not involved in the Nature study.

This is still a preliminary study, however — a snapshot in time. This may be an isolated individual or part of an isolated community of adventurers. It’s not clear whether they left anything behind, or interbred with Neanderthals or other hominins. It’s an enigmatic find, but it’s one for which we lack the context to properly understand. Without more evidence, it’s hard to say where this population came from, how far it ranged, and for how long it survived.

The study has been published in Nature.

Tool.

Neanderthals used resin as glue to craft complex stone tools

Archaeologists have uncovered one of the oldest known examples of ancient humans using an adhesive.

Tool.

Image credits Ulrike Mai.

The study focused on two Italian caves that were inhabited by Neanderthals from about 55 to 40 thousand years ago. These people used tree resin to secure stone tools to shafts — a technological advance called “hafting” which revolutionized tool use. Members of the group would travel long distances from their caves to collect pine tree resin and then melt and apply it to glue stone tools to handles of wood or bone.

Sticky matters

“We continue to find evidence that the Neanderthals were not inferior primitives but were quite capable of doing things that have traditionally only been attributed to modern humans,” says Paola Villa, corresponding author of the new study and an adjoint curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History.

The findings pool into a growing body of evidence suggesting that, far from being uncouth brutes, the Neanderthals were actually quite clever and ingenious. That insight comes from a chance discovery at Grotta del Fossellone and Grotta di Sant’Agostino, a pair of caves near the beaches of Italy’s west coast.

During the Middle Paleolithic (stone age) period, some thousands of years before modern humans set foot in Europe, these caves were inhabited by Neanderthals. Over 1,000 stone tools have been recovered from the two sites, including flint pieces that measured not much more than an inch or two from end to end. As they were studying these diminutive tools, Villa and her colleagues noticed a strange residue on a handful of them. These bits of material appeared to be organic in nature, which piqued the researchers’ curiosity.

“Sometimes that material is just inorganic sediment, and sometimes it’s the traces of the adhesive used to keep the tool in its socket” Villa said.

To find out, they carried out a chemical analysis of 10 flint pieces using gas chromatography/mass spectrometry — a technique that, basically, tells you the chemical make-up of a sample. The results suggest that the tools had been coated in resin taken from pine trees in the region; in one case, that resin had also been mixed with beeswax. Villa explains that, while most stone tools at this time were still hand-held, the Neanderthals in these caves did in some cases attach them to handles. This gave them better purchase for tasks such as butchering, scraping leather, or sharpening wooden spears.

This isn’t the oldest known evidence of European Neanderthals employing hafting, but it does suggest that the technique was more widespread than previously assumed. The findings also suggest that Neanderthals knew how to make fire and were able to start one whenever they wanted, just like their modern humans — something that scientists have long debated. She said that pine resin dries when exposed to air. As a result, Neanderthals needed to warm it over a small fired to make an effective glue.

“This is one of several proofs that strongly indicate that Neanderthals were capable of making fire whenever they needed it,” Villa said.

The paper “Hafting of Middle Paleolithic tools in Latium (central Italy): New data from Fossellone and Sant’Agostino caves” has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Credit: Flickr.

Ancient Neanderthal genomes reveal surprising twist in their settling of Europe

Credit: Flickr.

Credit: Flickr.

Recent digs and studies have revealed that Neanderthals, our close cousins, lived complex lives, which were very similar to our own. Neanderthals are now known for crafting complex tools, jewelry and other symbolic objects, or engaging in cultural practices such as ritual burials and cave art. And although Neanderthals went extinct more than 50,000 years ago, much of their rich history is still waiting to be uncovered — from their genes.

Most recently, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, sequenced the nuclear genome of two Neanderthal individuals who lived around 120,000 years ago. One genome sequence was performed on the femur of a male discovered in 1937 in Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave, Germany, the other on the maxillary bone of a girl found in 1993 in Scladina Cave, Belgium.

Most of our DNA is stored in the cell’s nucleus, while some of it is also stored in the mitochondria, i.e. mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Nuclear DNA is inherited equally from both parents; a child will inherit 50% of their nuclear DNA from the mother and the other 50% from their father. Meanwhile, mtDNA is passed on exclusively from the mother’s side.

The nuclear genomes of the two Neanderthals — the oldest genomes that scientists have sequenced thus far — revealed a surprising picture. Basically, these early Neanderthals in Western Europe were more closely related to some of the last Neanderthals living in the same region some 80,000 years ago than they were to contemporaneous Neanderthals living in Siberia.

The femur of a male Neandertal from Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave, Germany. Credit: Oleg Kuchar, Museum Ulm.

The femur of a male Neandertal from Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave, Germany. Credit: Oleg Kuchar, Museum Ulm.

“The result is truly extraordinary and a stark contrast to the turbulent history of replacements, large-scale admixtures and extinctions that is seen in modern human history,” said Kay Prüfer of Max Plank who supervised the study.
On the other hand, the mitochondrial genome of the Neanderthal from Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave has 70 mutations that distinguish it from the mtDNA of other early Neanderthals. This suggests that early European Neanderthals may have inherited some of their DNA from a hominid that’s yet to be discovered.
“This unknown population could represent an isolated Neanderthal population yet to be discovered, or may be from a potentially larger population in Africa related to modern humans,” explains Stéphane Peyrégne who led the analysis.
The findings suggest that Neanderthal populations in Europe went through multiple waves of replacement. But where did these new populations come from and were these turbulent re-populations limited to a particular region? Whatever the case may be, it becomes clearer with each new study that admixture was the norm in both Neanderthal and modern human populations (which today contain at least 2% Neanderthal DNA in their genomes).