Five for Friday: new discoveries clarify, tangle evolving human history
August 30, 2019 12:40 PM   Subscribe

3.8 million-year-old hominin skull fills in “a major gap” in the fossil record | Humans may have reached Europe by 210,000 years ago; by 40,000 years later, Neanderthals had taken over the site | Neanderthals’ history is as complicated as ours; new study hints at Neanderthal population turnover in Siberia 90,000-120,000 years ago. | Stone tools suggest the first Americans came from Japan | Not vikings this time — New archaeological layer discovered at L’Anse aux Meadows || All articles by Kiona N. Smith for Ars Technica.

A bit more from each article, plus links to the research:
  • The 3.8 million-year-old fossil reveals the face of Australopithecus anamensis.
    A 3.8 million-year-old fossil skull is giving anthropologists their first look at an early Australopithecine, the hominin genus that eventually led to modern humans. The skull belongs to a member of a species called Australopithecus anamensis, which many anthropologists have considered the ancestor of the fossil hominin Lucy and the rest of her species, Australopithecus afarensis. But the find suggests that, as with most of these things, the story may be more complicated. (A 3.8-million-year-old hominin cranium from Woranso-Mille, Ethiopia [access limited, abstract only]; Yohannes Haile-Selassie, Stephanie M. Melillo, Antonino Vazzana, Stefano Benazzi & Timothy M. Ryan; Nature, published 28 August 2019)
  • Re-evaluation of fossilized bones in Apidima Cave in southern Greece could revise timeline for human expansion into Eurasia.
    A few fossilized bones from the back of a skull may prove that our species spread into Eurasia much earlier than previously suspected. A new study of the partial skull, which was excavated from Apidima Cave in southern Greece 40 years ago, suggests that the fossil is Homo sapiens and that it’s roughly 210,000 years old. That makes it the oldest member of our species ever found outside of Africa. The fossil, known as Apidima 1, is likely the remains of a member of an early wave of humans who spread into Eurasia. Based on genetic studies and the fossil record, anthropologists think these early pioneers failed to gain a successful foothold and ended up being replaced by Neanderthals (for a while, at least). (Apidima Cave fossils provide earliest evidence of Homo sapiens in Eurasia [access limited, abstract only]; Katerina Harvati, Carolin Röding, Abel M. Bosman, Fotios A. Karakostis, Rainer Grün, Chris Stringer, Panagiotis Karkanas, Nicholas C. Thompson, Vassilis Koutoulidis, Lia A. Moulopoulos, Vassilis G. Gorgoulis & Mirsini Kouloukoussa; Nature volume 571, pages500–504 (2019) published 10 July 2019)
  • New study hints at Neanderthal population turnover in Siberia 90,000-120,000 years ago.
    DNA preserved in ancient bones and teeth has recently helped scientists reconstruct how groups of ancient humans migrated and mingled, and a new study now does the same thing for Neanderthals. Neanderthals lived in Eurasia for around 400,000 years, and it would be a huge stretch to assume they spent all that time as one big homogeneous population or that different groups of Neanderthals never migrated and mixed. Thanks to ancient DNA, we can now begin to see how Neanderthal groups moved around Eurasia long before Homo sapiens entered the mix. (Nuclear DNA from two early Neandertals reveals 80,000 years of genetic continuity in Europe [open access]; Stéphane Peyrégne, Viviane Slon, Fabrizio Mafessoni, Cesare de Filippo, Mateja Hajdinjak, Sarah Nagel, Birgit Nickel, Elena Essel, Adeline Le Cabec, Kurt Wehrberger, Nicholas J. Conard, Claus Joachim Kind, Cosimo Posth, Johannes Krause, Grégory Abrams, Dominique Bonjean, Kévin Di Modica, Michel Toussaint, Janet Kelso, Matthias Meyer, Svante Pääbo and Kay Prüfer; Science Advances, Evolutionary Biology 26 Jun 2019: Vol. 5, no. 6)
  • Stone tools at the Cooper's Ferry site resemble tools from Ice Age sites in Japan.
    Evidence from the Cooper's Ferry archaeological site in Western Idaho shows that people lived in the Columbia River Basin around 16,000 years ago. That's well before a corridor between ice sheets opened up, clearing an inland route south from the Bering land bridge. That suggests that people migrated south along the Pacific coast. Stone tools from the site suggest a possible connection between these first Americans and Northeast Asian hunter-gatherers from the same period. (Late Upper Paleolithic occupation at Cooper’s Ferry, Idaho, USA, ~16,000 years ago [access limited, abstract only]; Loren G. Davis, David B. Madsen, Lorena Becerra-Valdivia, Thomas Higham, David A. Sisson, Sarah M. Skinner, Daniel Stueber, Alexander J. Nyers, Amanda Keen-Zebert, Christina Neudorf, Melissa Cheyney, Masami Izuho, Fumie Iizuka, Samuel R. Burns, Clinton W. Epps, Samuel C. Willis, Ian Buvit; Science 30 Aug 2019: Vol. 365, Issue 6456, pp. 891-897)
  • The story of the only undisputed Norse site in the Americas just got more complicated.
    L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland is famed for being a site where Norse travelers set up a colony hundreds of years before Europe at large became aware of North America's existence. The colony was thought to be short-lived, but a new find may extend the length of its occupancy. While taking sediment cores from a nearby peat bog to help study the ancient environment, archaeologist Paul Ledger and his colleagues discovered a previously unknown chapter in the story of L’Anse aux Meadows. Buried about 35cm (14 inches) beneath the modern surface, they found signs of an ancient occupancy: a layer of trampled mud littered with woodworking debris, charcoal, and the remains of plants and insects. Based on its depth and the insect species present, the layer looks like similar surfaces from the edges of Viking Age Norse settlements in Greenland and Iceland. But organic material from the layer radiocarbon dated to the late 1100s or early 1200s, long after the Norse were thought to have left Newfoundland for good. Artifacts like a bronze cloak pin, a soapstone spindle piece, iron nails, and rivets make it clear who lived in the eight Icelandic-style turf shelters at L’Anse aux Meadows. Stone tools at the site suggest that indigenous North Americans, probably ancestors of the Beothuk and Dorset people, also lived or visited here. L’Anse aux Meadows may be the first place where Europeans and indigenous Americans interacted, and those interactions may have happened off and on for as long as 195 years. (New horizons at L’Anse aux Meadows [open access]; Paul M. Ledger, Linus Girdland-Flink, and Véronique Forbes; PNAS July 30, 2019 116 (31) 15341-15343; first published July 15, 2019)
posted by filthy light thief (11 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
I dub this Labor Day weekend post about Neanderthals/early hominids weekend and no one can stop me!
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 2:27 PM on August 30, 2019 [10 favorites]

If you're looking to dig up (harhar) more stories, I found these from Ars Technica, limiting myself to the past two months (July + August). Here's Kiona N. Smith's profile page on AT, with more science stories, including more on early hominids. I won't link to any other interesting finds in my comment here, though my fingers are itching to share more from that source alone.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:33 PM on August 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

I dub this Labor Day weekend post about Neanderthals/early hominids weekend and no one can stop me!
In fact, being a Stone Age dude or dude-ess (not sure what the correct Paleolithic usage would have been) was probably pretty labor-intensive, so ... I'm going to allow it.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 3:10 PM on August 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

Fantastic post and fascinating news!
posted by supermedusa at 4:03 PM on August 30, 2019

The Clovis Point and the Discovery of America’s First Culture, Smithsonian, Charles C. Mann, November 2013:
Clovis points are wholly distinctive. Chipped from jasper, chert, obsidian and other fine, brittle stone, they have a lance-shaped tip and (sometimes) wickedly sharp edges. Extending from the base toward the tips are shallow, concave grooves called “flutes” that may have helped the points be inserted into spear shafts. Typically about four inches long and a third of an inch thick, they were sleek and often beautifully made. After discovering Clovis points in New Mexico, Howard and others looked for traces of them in collections of artifacts from Siberia, the origin of the first Americans. None have ever been found. Clovis points, it seems, were an American invention—perhaps the first American invention.

More than 10,000 Clovis points have been discovered, scattered in 1,500 locations throughout most of North America; Clovis points, or something similar, have turned up as far south as Venezuela. They seem to have materialized suddenly, by archaeological standards, and spread fast. The oldest securely dated points, discovered in Texas, trace back 13,500 years. In a few centuries they show up everywhere from Florida to Montana, from Pennsylvania to Washington State.
...and in spaaace: how a 13,000 year old Clovis spear point from Illinois orbited the Earth.
posted by cenoxo at 10:23 PM on August 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

So if there was a longer term setrlement by the Norse in America, my question is why wasn't there an earlier NA plague and population crash? Why wasn't there more resistance to European diseases?
posted by happyroach at 1:13 AM on August 31, 2019

So if there was a longer term setrlement by the Norse in America, my question is why wasn't there an earlier NA plague and population crash? Why wasn't there more resistance to European diseases?

Smallpox apparently works pretty fast, and it didn’t make it to the Americas in the first couple Columbus trips because if anyone had it they died or got better before arriving.
posted by snofoam at 4:41 AM on August 31, 2019 [2 favorites]

So the vikings were their own little group that outside of raids and the like kept to themselves. So while I'm sure they carried some endemic diseases, they weren't cosmopolitan enough to carry all of the diseases like later colonists did. Also, Norse culture prized cleanliness in a way other Europeans did not. So those Norse settlers would have been A+ bathers and beard groomers, thus reducing the spread of germs. I'm sure they did kill a few indigenous people with a few germs, but nothing at the levels that would come later due to those two factors.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 8:32 AM on August 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

It's kind of surprising Syphilis wasn't introduced to Europe via this settlement. It doesn't have the highly lethal; fast acting problem that smallpox has that makes intercontinental transmission via sailing ship difficult. I wonder if this indicates a lack of fraternization? Cleanliness doesn't really have much effect on it's transmission.

PS: Getting the initial small pox vaccination (cowpox) to indigenous populations in the new world was a problem because they hadn't yet developed a way to keep the live virus vaccination viable. So Spanish doctor Francisco Javier de Balmis proposed using serial infection with cowpox during the voyage so that he'd end up with a pool of live cowpox virus to draw on once he got to the new world. But not only was transatlantic sailing in it self dangerous at the time he needed people who weren't already vaccinated.

So in 1803, with what be major ethical violation today, Balmis gathered up 22 orphans along with support personnel and sailed for Puerto Rico and eventually spread the vaccine all across north and south America.

This worked so well that 10 years later Balmis collected another group of 25 orphans in New Spain and set sail for the Philippines from which he eventually spread the vaccination to China and later on his way back to Spain via circumnavigation of the globe he stopped in St Helena and vaccinated the British colony there.

The whole story is fascinating.
posted by Mitheral at 4:41 PM on August 31, 2019 [7 favorites]

^From Mitheral’s “fascinating” link, The Smallpox Boat:
In 1803, Dr. Balmis came up with the solution: two dozen or so orphans.

Dr. Balmis noted that the cowpox virus could easily be transmitted from person to person — the pus from an infected person, if introduced into a previously unexposed person, would cause cowpox to spread. And that, ultimately, was a good thing, because cowpox exposure inoculated the infected against smallpox. So, Dr. Balmis correctly concluded that if you put someone infected with cowpox on a ship and sent them across the ocean, that person could carry the smallpox vaccine in his or her blood. The only problem with the plan is that the person’s immune system would fight off the cowpox virus long before he or she arrived in the Americas — and therefore, the vaccine would not longer be viable upon arrival.

So Dr. Balmis expanded on the idea. It wasn’t enough to have that one patient sail across the ocean; Dr. Balmis needed a bunch of unexposed people to join the trip. Along the way, pus from the initial cowpox patient would be introduced to a second, and then from the second to a third, and so on, with some redundancies built in to account for unforeseen problems. Dr. Balmis’ theory, effectively, was to daisy-chain the cowpox virus across the Atlantic through the blood of passengers on-board.

Of course, Dr. Balmis had difficulty finding volunteers for an obviously dangerous trip — trans-Atlantic transportation wasn’t the safest thing to begin with — so he found a group of people who would have trouble refusing: orphans. With the blessing of King Charles IV of Spain, Balmis, a half-dozen or so various medical assistants, the matron of the orphanage, and 22 orphan boys ages eight to ten set across the Atlantic in an effort to, in a sense, save the world.

The mission, now known as the Balmis Expedition, was successful.
The Spanish TV movie 22 ángeles (2016) is based on this expedition.

Pick a future time; use a space ship (and an alien virus); change the destination (Mars colony); toss in a mission-critical loss of inoculated passengers en voyage, and you might have a pretty good sci-fi movie.

Thanks, Mitheral!
posted by cenoxo at 10:24 PM on August 31, 2019 [2 favorites]

Fossil DNA Reveals New Twists in Modern Human Origins -- Modern humans and more ancient hominins interbred many times throughout Eurasia and Africa, and the genetic flow went both ways.
As scientists peer further back in time and uncover evolutionary relationships in unprecedented detail, their findings are complicating the narrative of human history and rescuing some formerly missing chapters from obscurity. Clues are emerging about the unexpected influence of gene flow from ancient hominins on modern human populations before the latter left Africa. Some researchers are even identifying the genetic contributions modern humans might have made to those other lineages, in a complete reversal of the usual scientific focus. Confusing and intertwined as these many effects can be, all of them shaped humanity as we now know it.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:05 PM on September 5, 2019

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