Homo Sapiens Drew Figurative Art for at Least 40,000 of Their 300,000 Years

(p. A10) On the wall of a cave deep in the jungles of Borneo, there is an image of a thick-bodied, spindly-legged animal, drawn in reddish ocher.
It may be a crude image. But it also is more than 40,000 years old, scientists reported on Wednesday, making this the oldest figurative art in the world.
Until now, the oldest known human-made figures were ivory sculptures found in Germany. Scientists have estimated that those figurines — of horses, birds and people — were at most 40,000 years old.
. . .
The finding . . . demonstrates that ancient humans somehow made the creative transition at roughly the same time, in places thousands of miles apart.
“It’s essentially happening at the same time at the opposite ends of the world,” said Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Australia and a co-author of the report, published in the journal Nature.
. . .
One thing is clear: Figurative art came late in the history of our species.
The oldest fossils of Homo sapiens, found in Morocco, are 300,000 years old. A study last year of genetic diversity among people today indicates that populations began diverging from one another in Africa between 260,000 and 350,000 years ago.
Today, every culture makes art of some sort, and it is likely that humans in Africa over 200,000 years ago had the capacity to create it.
But for thousands of generations, there’s no evidence that people actually made figurative art. The closest thing to it are abstract engravings etched on shells or pieces of ocher.

For the full story, see:

Carl Zimmer. “Cave Contains World’s Oldest Figurative Art, Dating Back Over 40,000 Years.”The New York Times (Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018): A10.

(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Nov. 7, 2018, and has the title “In Cave in Borneo Jungle, Scientists Find Oldest Figurative Painting in the World.”)

The Nature article, mentioned above, has been published online in advance of the print version:
Aubert, M., P. Setiawan, A. A. Oktaviana, A. Brumm, P. H. Sulistyarto, E. W. Saptomo, B. Istiawan, T. A. Ma’rifat, V. N. Wahyuono, F. T. Atmoko, J. X. Zhao, J. Huntley, P. S. C. Taçon, D. L. Howard, and H. E. A. Brand. “Palaeolithic Cave Art in Borneo.” Nature (Nov. 7, 2018) DOI: 10.1038/s41586-018-0679-9.

Stylus Line Drawing Found from 73,000 Years Past

(p. A13) Researchers say they’ve found the world’s oldest known line drawing in a seaside cave in South Africa–a red cross-hatched grid sketched on a broken grindstone by early humans 73,000 years ago.
The discovery, made public Wednesday [September 12, 2018] in Nature, offers evidence of an important addition to the artist’s tool kit, the scientists said. Experts in human origins have discovered many images of greater antiquity made by engraving or by painting, but this appears to be the oldest example of a picture made by using a stylus.
“It was definitely drawn with a pen or pencil,” said archaeologist Christopher Henshilwood at the University of Bergen in Norway, who led the team that analyzed the drawing. If so, the abstract image appears to be about 30,000 years older than other early drawings in Europe, Africa and Southeast Asia.
. . .
In the prehistory of human creativity, the invention of drawing combines a new skill and a new tool. Drawing with a stylus of some sort is a breakthrough in portability and spontaneous expression that can turn any surface into a message board. “If you can draw, you can walk across a landscape and leave a message or a symbol anywhere you want,” Dr. Henshilwood said.

For the full story, see:
Robert Lee Hotz. “Ancient Hashtag Reveals Origins of Drawing.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018): A13.
(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Sept. 12, 2018, and has the title “Is This the World’s Oldest Hashtag?”)

New Tools May Have Allowed Hominins to Leave Africa Far Earlier Than Previously Known

(p. D1) The oldest stone tools outside Africa have been discovered in western China, scientists reported on Wednesday [July 11, 2018]. Made by ancient members of the human lineage, called hominins, the chipped rocks are estimated to be as much as 2.1 million years old.
The find may add a new chapter to the story of hominin evolution, suggesting that some of these species left Africa far earlier than once believed and managed to travel over 8,000 miles east of their evolutionary birthplace.
. . .
(p. D3) The trigger for that migration? Maybe it was figuring out how to make sharp stone tools.
“Suddenly you had a primate that could obtain meat from a carcass, and it opened up a new world for them,” Dr. Dennell said. “That simple technology was enough to get them out of Africa and right across Asia.”

For the full story, see:

Zimmer, Carl. “Ancient Tools Provide New Insight.” The New York Times (Tuesday, July 17, 2018): D1 & D3.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date July 11, 2018, and has the title “Archaeologists in China Discover the Oldest Stone Tools Outside Africa.”)

Ancient Skeletons Harbor a Common Cause of Liver Cancer

(p. A9) Scientists reported on Wednesday [May 9, 2018] that they have recovered DNA from the oldest viruses known to have infected humans — and have succeeded in resurrecting some of them in the laboratory.
The viruses were all strains of hepatitis B. Two teams of researchers independently discovered its DNA in 15 ancient skeletons, the oldest a farmer who lived 7,000 years ago in what is now Germany.
Until now, the oldest viral DNA ever recovered from human remains was just 450 years old.
The research may provide clues to the continuing evolution of hepatitis B, a plague that infects an estimated 257 million people worldwide and contributes to an epidemic of liver cancer.
. . .
Chronic infections can lead to liver cancer. Each year, the World Health Organization estimates, hepatitis B kills 887,000 people. Researchers have long wondered how it became a worldwide menace.
. . .
. . . the skeletons in which the Cambridge geneticists found hepatitis range from 820 to 4,500 years old. The research, published in the journal Nature, demonstrates that hepatitis B existed across Europe and Asia as early as the Bronze Age.
. . .
Johannes Krause and his colleagues examined DNA extracted from the teeth of 53 ancient people in what is now Germany. Three of them were infected with hepatitis B, it turned out: one who lived about 1,000 years ago, a second person who lived 5,300 years ago and a third who lived 7,000 years ago.
. . .
Dr. Krause and his colleagues found that their Stone Age viruses were most closely related to strains of hepatitis B found today only in chimpanzees and gorillas.
He speculated that the virus jumped from apes to humans early in the history of our species in Africa. “It’s more likely this is really an old pathogen in humans for the last hundred thousand years or more,” he said.

For the full story, see:
Zimmer, Carl. “In Ancient Skeletons, Scientists Discover a Modern Foe: Hepatitis B.” The New York Times (Thursday, May 10, 2018): A9.
(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date MAY 9, 2018. The print version cited above is the National Edition.)

The paper by the Cambridge geneticists, mentioned above, is:
Mühlemann, Barbara, Terry C. Jones, Peter de Barros Damgaard, Morten E. Allentoft, Irina Shevnina, Andrey Logvin, Emma Usmanova, Irina P. Panyushkina, Bazartseren Boldgiv, Tsevel Bazartseren, Kadicha Tashbaeva, Victor Merz, Nina Lau, Václav Smrčka, Dmitry Voyakin, Egor Kitov, Andrey Epimakhov, Dalia Pokutta, Magdolna Vicze, T. Douglas Price, Vyacheslav Moiseyev, Anders J. Hansen, Ludovic Orlando, Simon Rasmussen, Martin Sikora, Lasse Vinner, Albert D. M. E. Osterhaus, Derek J. Smith, Dieter Glebe, Ron A. M. Fouchier, Christian Drosten, Karl-Göran Sjögren, Kristian Kristiansen, and Eske Willerslev. “Ancient Hepatitis B Viruses from the Bronze Age to the Medieval Period.” Nature 557, no. 7705 (May 9, 2018): 418-23.

The paper co-authored by Krause, and mentioned above, is:
Krause-Kyora, Ben, Julian Susat, Felix M. Key, Denise Kühnert, Esther Bosse, Alexander Immel, Christoph Rinne, Sabin-Christin Kornell, Diego Yepes, Sören Franzenburg, Henrike O. Heyne, Thomas Meier, Sandra Lösch, Harald Meller, Susanne Friederich, Nicole Nicklisch, Kurt W. Alt, Stefan Schreiber, Andreas Tholey, Alexander Herbig, Almut Nebel, and Johannes Krause. “Neolithic and Medieval Virus Genomes Reveal Complex Evolution of Hepatitis B.” eLife 7 (2018): e36666.

Human Ancestors May Have Had Capacity for Symbolic Thought 600,000 Years Ago

(p. D1) On Thursday [February 22, 2018], a team of researchers offered compelling evidence that Neanderthals bore one of the chief hallmarks of mental sophistication: they could paint cave art. That talent suggests that Neanderthals could think in symbols and may have achieved other milestones not preserved in the fossil record.
“When you have symbols, then you have language,” said João Zilhão, an archaeologist at the University of Barcelona and co-author of the new study.
. . .
(p. D6) But a second study, which Dr. Zilhão and his colleagues published Thursday [February 22, 2018], in the journal Science Advances, hints that Neanderthals might well have been painting long before 64,000 years ago.
The scientists traveled to a cave on the coast of Spain where Dr. Zilhão had earlier discovered shells that had been drilled with holes and painted with ocher.
. . .
He and his colleagues discovered a layer of flowstone sitting atop the rock where they had found the shell jewelry. That flowstone turned out to be about 115,000 years old.
. . .
The colored, pierced shells themselves are probably not much older than that. Up until about 118,000 years ago, the cave was flooded, thanks to higher sea levels.
That finding provides strong evidence that the shells were made by Neanderthals. They were definitely living in Spain 115,000 years ago, while modern humans would not arrive in Europe for another 70,000 years.
The two new studies don’t just indicate that Neanderthals could make cave art and jewelry. They also establish that Neanderthals were making these things long before modern humans — a blow to the idea that they simply copied their cousins.
The earliest known cave paintings made by modern humans are only about 40,000 years old, while Neanderthal cave art is at least 24,000 years older. The oldest known shell jewelry made by modern humans is about 70,000 years old, but Neanderthals were making it 45,000 years before then.
“These results imply that Neanderthals were not apart from these developments,” said Dr. Zilhão. “For all practical purposes, they were modern humans, too.”
The new studies raise another intriguing possibility, said Clive Finlayson, director of the Gibraltar Museum: that the capacity for symbolic thought was already present 600,000 years ago in the ancestors of both Neanderthals and modern humans.
He agreed with Dr. Zilhão that the new study supports the idea that Neanderthals used language. In addition to the evidence of symbolic thought, researchers have also found that the inner ears of Neanderthals were tuned to the frequencies of speech, much like our own.
“We don’t know how they spoke or what they said,” said Dr. Finlayson. “But they had the ability of speech.”
The cave paintings that Dr. Pike and his colleagues have dated are generally abstract. There’s no evidence so far that Neanderthals painted images of lions and other animals, as modern humans did thousands of years later.
But Dr. Pike doesn’t think a lack of animal imagery marks a mental deficiency in Neanderthals. It could simply reflect a cultural preference.’

For the full story, see:
Zimmer, Carl. “MATTER; The Neanderthal, the Artist.” The New York Times (Tuesday, February 27, 2018): D1 & D6.
(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date FEB. 22, 2018, and has the title “MATTER; Neanderthals, the World’s First Misunderstood Artists.”)

The first article mentioned above and co-authored by Zilhão, is:

Hoffmann, D. L., C. D. Standish, M. García-Diez, P. B. Pettitt, J. A. Milton, J. Zilhão, J. J. Alcolea-González, P. Cantalejo-Duarte, H. Collado, R. de Balbín, M. Lorblanchet, J. Ramos-Muñoz, G. Ch Weniger, and A. W. G. Pike. “U-Th Dating of Carbonate Crusts Reveals Neandertal Origin of Iberian Cave Art.” Science 359, no. 6378 (Feb. 23, 2018): 912-915.

The second article mentioned above and co-authored by Zilhão, is:
Hoffmann, Dirk L., Diego E. Angelucci, Valentín Villaverde, Josefina Zapata, and João Zilhão. “Symbolic Use of Marine Shells and Mineral Pigments by Iberian Neandertals 115,000 Years Ago.” Science Advances 4, no. 2 (Feb. 22, 2018): 1-6.

New Technology Reveals Fossil Secrets

(p. A11) Using a new laser imaging technique to reveal traces of soft tissue in fossils of an early feathered, birdlike dinosaur, scientists have found direct evidence of a wing structure needed for flight that was previously invisible from the preserved bone evidence.
The research is part of a body of work on the cutting edge of paleontology, leveraging new technology to flesh out the study of fossils beyond bones, to look at soft tissue and feathers. Other scientists have recently turned up evidence of the protein collagen preserved in dinosaur fossils millions of years old, and scanned feathers, muscle, skin and ligament tissue from a dinosaur’s tail preserved in amber.
Known as laser-stimulated fluorescence, the new imaging technique “is revealing information preserved in the fossil we can’t see with normal light,” says University of Hong Kong paleontologist Michael Pittman, one of the leaders of the research, published Tuesday [February 28, 2017] in Nature Communications.

For the full story, see:
Ellie Kincaid. “Imaging Reveals Soft Tissue in Dinosaur Fossil.” The Wall Street Journal (Weds., March 1, 2017): A11.
(Note: bracketed date added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Feb. 28, 2017, and has the title “New Imaging Method Helps Scientists Look Beyond Dinosaur Bones.”)

The Ship that Held the Antikythera Mechanism Was Greek, Not Roman

(p. A12) A bronze statue’s orphaned arm. A corroded disc adorned with a bull. Preserved wooden planks. These are among the latest treasures that date back to the dawn of the Roman Empire, discovered amid the ruins of the Antikythera shipwreck, a sunken bounty off the coast of a tiny island in Greece.
. . .
For decades people referred to it as a Roman shipwreck, like in Jacques Cousteau’s documentary “Diving for Roman Plunder,” but the team’s findings since 2012 — such as a chemical analysis of lead on the ship’s equipment that trace it back to northern Greece and the personal possessions they found with Greek names etched on them — are changing that narrative, Dr. Foley said. “It’s starting to look an awful lot like a Greek-built, Greek-crewed ship, not a Roman-Italian vessel.”

For the full story, see:
NICHOLAS ST. FLEUR. “A Bronze Arm Points to More Treasure Below.” The New York Times (Sat., OCT. 7, 2017): A12.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date OCT. 5, 2017, and has the title “Bronze Arm Found in Famous Shipwreck Points to More Treasure Below.”)

Amateur Archaeologists Uncover Most Important Roman Site in Half Century

(p. A6) BOXFORD, England — Their ages range from 9 to about 80. They include a butcher and a builder. Some devoted vacation days to laboring on their hands and knees in an open field.
The group of amateur archaeologists — 55 in all, though only two dozen toiled on a typical day — were part of an excavation project near the village of Boxford, in southern England. They had to contend not just with days of backbreaking work, but also with a daunting, two-week deadline to complete the challenging dig.
Their commitment was handsomely repaid, though, in a few magical moments one Saturday last month. As a layer of soil was carefully scooped away, small, muddy pieces of red-colored tiling glinted in the sunlight, probably for the first time in more than one and a half millenniums.
The mosaic that slowly emerged from the earth is part of a Roman villa, thought to date from 380 A.D., toward the end of the period of Roman domination of England. The find is being described as the most important of its type in Britain in more than half a century, and in this picturesque, riverside village of thatched cottages, the scale of the discovery is still sinking in.
. . .
“It was down to the volunteers, it really was. I get quite emotional about it; it was something to see their drive,” added Mr. Nichol, project officer for Cotswold Archaeology, a company whose normal work includes helping real estate developers preserve archaeological finds.
. . .
So for the organizers, it was a relief, rather than a disappointment, when the earth was pushed back to conceal their discovery.
The night before that was done, Mr. Nichol decided to keep watch over the site from his S.U.V. with a supply of food, a sleeping bag and a bottle of red wine, all donated by volunteers.
The Roman owner of the villa would have invited guests to eat and drink on this spot, using the mosaic as a talking point, so a mildly bacchanalian vigil did not seem out of place.
“I was on my own in the field; it was incredible,” Mr. Nichol said. He described how, in the solitude, he felt drawn back across the centuries to experience a unique connection to the more-than-1,600-year-old archaeological site, and to the mythological images of its extraordinary, colorful mosaic.
“The wine did help,” he added.

For the full story, see:
STEPHEN CASTLE. “BOXFORD JOURNAL; A Link to Roman Era Is Unearthed in the English Countryside.” The New York Times (Tues., SEPT. 19, 2017): A6.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date SEPT. 18, 2017, and has the title “BOXFORD JOURNAL; Amateur U.K. Archaeologists Stumble on a Roman Masterpiece.”)

Rise of Civilization Made Possible by Fish

(p. C7) The subtitle of “Fishing” rather misleads: Mr. Fagan, an archaeological writer and emeritus professor at U.C. Santa Barbara, devotes nearly half this book to the way fishing was practiced for hundreds of thousands of years in subsistence cultures around the world, beginning with pre-Neanderthal hominids trapping catfish in shallow pools or shrinking rivers. He goes on to survey ancient fishing practices in the East and the West, the Old World and the New, and then the rise and fall of civilizations, the ascendancy of commerce, and such contemporary tools as lines 60 miles long bearing 30,000 baited hooks.
Along the way we find that fishing not only sustained ancient empires and modern nations to a degree we may not have grasped before–the pyramids of Giza, Mr. Fagan notes, could not have been built without hundreds of workers processing thousands of Nile fish each day, both fresh and dried, for laborers–but nurtured them as well.
The cooperative nature of fishing, wherever catches were rich and stable, fostered complex and hierarchical communities long before cities arose. The technologies of boat-building and seamanship seeded exploration. Shells, beads and dried or salted fish sustained long-distance trade networks, and even today, Mr. Fagan writes, fish are “the most traded commodity in the world.” And of course preserved fish–nutritious, lightweight, long-lasting–were the primary fuel of merchant fleets, navies and conquering armies.
No coincidence, then, that civilizations flourished along seacoasts or river systems, and yet we conceive of civilization as primarily an agricultural phenomenon, and we celebrate the farmer as its founder and culture hero. By contrast, fishermen, writes Mr. Fagan, “lived at the obscure margins of society, anonymous, hard-working, and laconic, and largely outside the dramas that interest historians.”

For the full review, see:

Richard Adams Carey. “What the Land Owes to the Sea.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Sept. 23, 2017): C7.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Sept. 22, 2017.)

The book under review, is:
Fagan, Brian. Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017.

300,000-Year-Old Homo Sapien Fossils Found

(p. A6) Fossils discovered in Morocco are the oldest known remains of Homo sapiens, scientists reported on Wednesday [June 7, 2017], a finding that rewrites the story of mankind’s origins and suggests that our species evolved in multiple locations across the African continent.
“We did not evolve from a single ‘cradle of mankind’ somewhere in East Africa,” said Philipp Gunz, a paleoanthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and a co-author of two new studies on the fossils, published in the journal Nature. “We evolved on the African continent.”
Until now, the oldest known fossils of our species dated back just 195,000 years. The Moroccan fossils, by contrast, are roughly 300,000 years old. Remarkably, they indicate that early Homo sapiens had faces much like our own, although their brains differed in fundamental ways.
. . .
Resetting the clock on mankind’s debut would be achievement enough. But the new research is also notable for the discovery of several early humans rather than just one, as so often happens, said Marta Mirazon Lahr, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Cambridge who was not involved in the new study.
“We have no other place like it, so it’s a fabulous finding,” she said.
The people at Jebel Irhoud shared a general resemblance to one another — and to living humans. Their brows were heavy, their chins small, their faces flat and wide. But all in all, they were not so different from people today.
“The face is that of somebody you could come across in the Metro,” Dr. Hublin said.
The flattened faces of early Homo sapiens may have something to do with the advent of speech, speculated Christopher Stringer, a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London.
“We really are at very early stages of trying to explain these things,” Dr. Stringer said.
The brains of the inhabitants of Jebel Irhoud, on the other hand, were less like our own.
Although they were as big as modern human brains, they did not yet have its distinctively round shape. They were long and low, like those of earlier hominins.
Dr. Gunz, of the Max Planck Institute, said that the human brain may have become rounder at a later phase of evolution. Two regions in the back of the brain appear to have become enlarged over thousands of years.
“I think what we see reflect adaptive changes in the way the brain functions,” he said. Still, he added, no one knows how a rounder brain changed how we think.
The people of Jebel Irhoud were certainly sophisticated. They could make fires and craft complex weapons, such as wooden handled spears, needed to kill gazelles and other animals that grazed the savanna that covered the Sahara 300,000 years ago.
The flint is interesting for another reason: Researchers traced its origin to another site about 20 miles south of Jebel Irhoud. Early Homo sapiens, then, knew how to search out and to use resources spread over long distances.

For the full story, see:
Zimmer, Carl. “MATTER; Oldest Fossils of Homo Sapiens Found in Morocco, Altering History of Species.” The New York Times (Thurs., JUNE 8, 2017): A6.
(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 7, 2017, and has the title “MATTER; Oldest Fossils of Homo Sapiens Found in Morocco, Altering History of Our Species.”)

I believe the two Nature articles mentioned above, are:
Hublin, Jean-Jacques, Abdelouahed Ben-Ncer, Shara E. Bailey, Sarah E. Freidline, Simon Neubauer, Matthew M. Skinner, Inga Bergmann, Adeline Le Cabec, Stefano Benazzi, Katerina Harvati, and Philipp Gunz. “New Fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco and the Pan-African Origin of Homo Sapiens.” Nature 546, no. 7657 (June 8, 2017): 289-92.
Richter, Daniel, Rainer Grün, Renaud Joannes-Boyau, Teresa E. Steele, Fethi Amani, Mathieu Rué, Paul Fernandes, Jean-Paul Raynal, Denis Geraads, Abdelouahed Ben-Ncer, Jean-Jacques Hublin, and Shannon P. McPherron. “The Age of the Hominin Fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, and the Origins of the Middle Stone Age.” Nature 546, no. 7657 (June 8, 2017): 293-96.